Be the living expression of God's kindness.
And then suddenly this woman, on hearing my name, embraced me warmly. There on the pavement, at the corner of Clifton Road and Church Avenue. I was somewhat taken aback, not something that happens very often nowadays. To my relief she then explained her heart-felt hug: I had visited her in hospital in Buxton, quite a journey from Rochdale, about a 70 mile round trip. We were in Rochdale on Wednesday for a friend’s funeral and as in most funerals an opportunity to meet people you haven’t seen for a while. It was good to be back and to be in the church where I had been vicar for nearly nine years. I could remember my visit to Buxton Hospital: it must have been about 1985. And I remember why I went - a young mother with a grim prognosis for whatever it was, being treated miles away from her family. She had been a member of St John’s but as far as I can recall she never appeared in church during the rest of my time there. The point is, not obvious at the time I have to add, is that she hugely appreciated my visit. Not for what I said or prayer as such, just the fact of the visit itself – a whole afternoon, albeit a pleasant outing in the Peak District. And this, after some 37 years, was her opportunity to say ‘thank you!’ Clearly it meant a lot to her. I guess we all have a similar experience, of an event – maybe many years ago – which has touched us deeply. An act of kindness, even from a complete stranger. To this day I prefer to shop at Boots – even though the Superdrug shop opposite may have a better deal. It all goes back to when I was about nine or ten. While I was in Boots South Road I had a spectacular nose bleed. To my relief the shop assistant, on seeing me covered in blood, took me into the back room to treat me and clean up my pullover. Her kindness has stayed with me over the decades. I owe Boots one. “A single act of kindness,” observes aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, “throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.” What we do today in caring for others may well have ramifications over many years, even over a whole lifetime. The early Christians were known for their kindness. In fact, the Greek word for kindness, chrestos, is virtually the same as Christos, just one letter different. Christians are called for their kindness. After all, it is a fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22). God’s kindness appearing in our lives. Strangely we hesitate to see kindness in God. Love, yes, but kindness? Life, as for that young mother in Buxton Hospital, can be tough. We face trials, hardships, par for the course if we choose to follow Jesus. And yet the Bible affirms very strongly the kindness of God. For Lent I am reading Pete Greig’s brilliant book, God on Mute. (BUY IT NOW, the 2020 edition, just £9.99: https://www.eden.co.uk/god-on-mute-pete-greig/ ) Greig, writing from a position of considerable hurt shows how we are to encounter suffering, especially as endured by those we love, in the spirit of Jesus who suffered for us. It is not just that God is love but saying the same thing in a different way, God is kind. In some ways that sounds even more radical. So the apostle Paul explains the intervention of God into our messy world, he writes: “But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. (Titus 3:4). After all the Hebrew scriptures affirm time and time again the hesed of God, traditionally translated as ‘loving kindness.” A unique quality of kindness, over-the-top, excessive. Karl Barth, the leading theologian of the last century, argued: “This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ. Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before.” He's right! As it happens, over the last few years since my retirement, I have become more aware of this quality of God’s love, his kindness, his overwhelming loving kindness. I guess life in ministry makes you toughen up as a callus would protect our skin. But I am in awe of how God has looked after us: tenderly, creatively. I love this quote from the Scottish Baptist pastor Alexander MacLaren: “Seek to cultivate a buoyant, joyous sense of the crowded kindnesses of God in your daily life.” He ministered just down the road from Rochdale, in the centre of Manchester at the turn of the 20th century and stayed there, despite his dislike of the climate and the workload. His was the kindness which cost, the chrestos of Christos. Such was his ministry that in 1896, the citizens of Manchester had his portrait painted for their art gallery. And so as we abide in Christ, so his kindnesses appear in our lives, to touch those who we bump into each day. Not so much as an act of will (although that can be necessary at times – we are still forgiven sinners) but just for who we are as Christ is formed in us. As Christians we are to be known for our kindnesses not our censures. As Mother Theresa urges us: “Be the living expression of God's kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.”