The Charades of Kindness

November 30, 2014

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Some of you know Brian Lehrer, the local NPR host who is celebrating 25 years of doing his show this week. You know the NPR format, that in pretty much every location, there is a morning talk person, who has to try to be interesting for an hour or two, daily. I only have to be interesting weekly – and even then not every week – so I know the challenge. Brian has been more than interesting day in and day out for over 25 years, and I think I know his secret. It could be yours as well. He is kind and critical at the same time. For example this week, when Dr.Craig Spencer, a 33 year old doctor who worked with Doctors Without Borders in Guinea, returned with the Ebola virus in his body, Brian immediately hosted a show. Overnight it seemed. He started the show with a hybrid ritual, one I had not heard or seen before on the radio. Did you see it? He asked us to hold our queestinos, our concerns, our angst, our fear, our jumbled sense of the virus. Just hold them, said Rabbi Lehrer, taking on the role of priest on the air. “Will all of you please get something to drink? Your coffee or your tea, or a glass of tap water. Just go get something to drink and put it in your hand. And then, no matter what you think or don’t think, want to say or don’t want to say, when we all have something in our hands in the five boroughs and in Jersey and in Connecticut and in the region and beyond – yes one of his listeners that morning was from Vietnam – please toast Dr. Spencer for having gone to Guinea to try to help. There was a brief moment of silence on the air…and those of us who knew how to obey ritual orders on line toasted Dr. Spencer. It reminded me of agape. Or of a wedding toast. It was an odd hybrid ritual, led by an odd hybrid of a shaman. It was community brought to complexity and united ever so briefly.

Many of you have asked me to speak about Ebola. I have been hesitating because I know so little about disease or medicine and I know even less about West Africa. I am afraid of exposing my ignorance or – worse – making our fears worst by talking about what remains enough of a mystery to warrant inexpert testimony a drop in the bucket of ignorance. Plus, I knew I was going to preach about kindness today – and its charades – and the last thing I want to do is insert more negative energy into the ebola discussion and reality. Surely I don’t want to ignore your legitimate concerns. And surely I don’t want to be one more critic of the CDC or the government or the pharmaceutical companies or Dr. Spencer or all of the above. Kindess often gets derailed in the blame game, as if, once we found someone to blame for something, we had taken care of the matter. Getting the blame right won’t stop people form dying from Ebola. So let’s not go there.

Kindness need not be a game of charades, you know, where you have to guess what the person is saying, using clues. Kindness can be a destination – and the first stop ono the way is to refuse to blame. It is even more than that. It is the capacity to judge while refusing to do so. It is a little like what Brian does when he rushes people off the phone. Ok, he’ll say with a smile in his voice, we’ve had enough of that. Next caller?

Kindness knows there are more voices to be heard and refuses to let the last voice occupy all the air time. Kindness that ignores the other voices on the line – literally the millions of people in the worldl who just want to be heard and acknowledged, respected and voiced – is not kindness at all. It is just wimpy. Likewise, making sure your voice gets heard without hearing others is not kindness either. It is also not justice. It is a charade of justice. Justice is kind. Without kindness, there can be no justice. Imagine if you left here this morning judged for not being kind enough? Or if Judson decided that it was sufficiently wonderful that it didn’t need to have difficult conersatinos about the modern testimony last week or the bulletin cover or the whatever? When kindness exits the room or the conversation, so do people. If you are doing the charade of kindness, you may not even see them leave. If you are doing a just kindness, an appreciative kindness, an inclusive kindness, you do what Brian did so beautifully on Thursday. You find a simple way to let everybody know they are there. Maybe all it is is a morning toast in a sea of trouble. Kindness finds rituals. Charades of kindness can’t find rituals and so they stay in the judge and critical and let’s keep you out of the circle role.

Forced kindness is not kindness at all, instead it is an obedience to manners. If you get a paper back from an instructor, and all he or she says is “Wonderful,” you probably don’t respect that person. Posiitves have to have the capacity of negatives in the same way that negatives need to have the capacity of positives. Kindness without criticism is facile; criticism without kindness is cruel. Kindness is possible, especially when we understand that kind people are not people who like everything. Kind people may even be people who are deeply hurt and whose hurt has opened up the love deep down in them.

Do you mind if I practice on you a little? I am pretty upset with Governor Cuomo. He made a deal with the working families party. He made a deal with the Women’s Equality Agenda. And now, on some ballots, there will appear, some confusing language, obfuscating that deal and breaking it. Also he will act like the champion of the women’s equality agenda, which has yet to affirm abortion in New York State. He also has yet to make a determination about fracking. The ins and outs and ups and downs of all of this I leave to Bryan Lehrer’s two hour show. For now, just let me say that I am pretty upset with Governor Cuomo. Why am I so upset with him?

You see, New York used to be a great place. I know I am one of the few native New Yorkers in the congregation. Bear with me. When you love something the way a child loves something, it is hard to unlove it. I’m not just talking about the Catskill mountains or the Hudson River or the Long Island Sound or the Peconic Bay or the falls at Niagara – although if you wanted I could go on and on about the way they have an unfailing capacity to stir me. I am also talking about the way the state led in abortion rights and had a great SUNY system and adored immigrants and kept the Brooklyn beat in its heart, way before Brooklyn was stylish. I am talking about the way former Governor Rockefeller coined a term, the “Rockefeller Republicans,” which meant the kind kind of a Republican. Now instead of the state’s culture and geography stirring me, I worry for it. I watch Albany with a kind of dismay, so frequent do we discover yet another politician in bed with money or women or both. I can’t even remember all their names so many are those whose corruption stirred me up rather than stirring me. I am over Eliot Spitzer as are most people, not yet over what’s his name, who was going to be such a good congressman. (What is his name??)

When I hurt like this, and ache like this, I am mightily tempted to the cynical, which is pretty much the armor we wear to keep us from kindness. I don’t want to hurt like this. I don’t want to become so ashamed of the current New York School system that I cynically blame somebody for it. I don’t want my kind parts to be silenced or corrupted by corruption. I want to keep my kind parts safe from disappointment.

So do you, if last week’s post church conversation is any indication. Some of us were “hurt” by the bulletin cover having a black child on it, when the subject was abortion, implying ever so subtly that black children were the subject of the converestaion. They were not but our lack of attention to that detail allowed for an implication that was – to put it mildly – unkind. Some of us were also hurt or triggered and felt unsafe by the angry readings of mean men for the modern testimony. If you weren’t here, please forgive me. And feel free to find out more. As with Ebola, I am afraid of making a situation worse by criticizing it. On the other hand, I am now clearing the road for kindness. I told you I was just practicing. Without an acknowledgement of how much you are afraid of Ebola or upset with the governor or perplexed by parts of a Sunday service, you won’t get to your destination in kindness. With those acknowledgements you can get all the way home to a kind spirit, that also knows its troubles.

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