Archive | December 2016

This Year’s Lesson: KINDNESS

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What do an Italian psychotherapist, a Christian college president in California, and a hitchhiker across America have in common? They each wrote a book about kindness. And I read them all this year.

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As you may recall, “kindness” is my special word for 2016. Upon the suggestion of Debbie Macomber in her book, One Perfect Word, I’ve chosen one special word to have as my focus for a whole year instead of making up New Year’s resolutions each year. I’ve done this for three years now.

By the middle of this year, I’d kind of forgotten about my special word for 2016. When I realized that, I decided to take my special word commitment a little more seriously, and I went to Amazon.com and searched for books on “kindness.” I downloaded Kindle versions of two books: The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life by Piero Ferrucci (the Italian psychotherapist) and Love Kindness: Discover the Power of a Forgotten Christian Virtue by Barry H. Corey (the president of Biola University). The next day I received my usual daily email from BookBub, a service that offers about half a dozen Kindle books each day for prices ranging from FREE to $1.99. That day’s offering included The Kindness of Strangers: Penniless across America by Mike McIntyre (the journalist who hitchhiked from the west coast to the east coast without a penny in his pocket in order to see if he would experience any kindness from strangers throughout this country).

All three books are filled with personal stories about people who have received or demonstrated kindness in a wide variety of circumstances. All three books are fascinating to read and I highly recommend them.

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I read The Power of Kindness first because of the Preface written by the Dalai Lama. I could hardly wait to start reading it. Here’s an excerpt from the Preface:

This is a book after my own heart. Piero Ferrucci has drawn on both his broad experience as a psychotherapist and what I think of as fundamental human values to write on the importance of kindness. What I particularly appreciate about his presentation is that he makes kindness the starting point, the fount from which flow so many other positive qualities, such as honesty, forgiveness, patience, and generosity. It is a compelling and encouraging approach.

I believe that if we stop to think, it is clear that our very survival, even today, depends upon the acts and kindness of so many people. Right from the moment of our birth, we are under the care and kindness of our parents; later in life, when facing the sufferings of disease and old age, we are again dependent on the kindness of others. If at the beginning and end of our lives we depend upon others’ kindness, why then in the middle, when we have the opportunity, should we not act kindly toward others?

Kindness and compassion are among the principal things that make our lives meaningful. They are the source of lasting happiness and joy…

Each chapter of this book is about a particular virtue, such as Honesty, Forgiveness, Humility, Flexibility, and so on. And each chapter is filled with stories about real people who demonstrate these virtues, with kindness always being at the core. For example, the chapter on Warmth includes this little story:

A woman I know, let’s call her Dorothea, tells me another story. Every evening she hears her neighbors’ baby girl crying in the apartment next to hers. The parents put the child to sleep alone in the dark. The baby cries for a long time while the parents watch television. The baby’s desperate crying expresses all her anguish, her solitude. What should Dorothea do? She is uncertain. Speaking to the parents might make things worse. She decides to sing. Just as she can hear the baby, the baby can hear her. Every evening when they put the baby to bed, Dorothea sings her sweet lullabies, talks to her through the thin walls, consoles and comforts her. The baby hears the invisible friendly voice, stops crying, and falls peacefully asleep. The warmth of a stranger’s voice has saved her from the icy cold of loneliness.

In the concluding chapter of the book, Ferrucci recalls another story:

In a story by Tolstoy, a poor shoemaker hears the voice of Christ in a dream: “Today I will come to you.” Then he wakes up and goes to work. During the day, he meets a young woman who is hungry and he gives her food. An old man passes by feeling cold, and he lets him in to warm himself. Later, he takes care of a child who is having problems with his mother. They are all spontaneous acts for which he need give no thought. At the end of the day, before going to sleep, the shoemaker remembers his dream and thinks that it has not come true, since he did not meet Christ. He then hears a voice. It is the voice of Christ, “My dear friend, did you not recognize me? I was that woman, I was that old man, I was the child and his mother…. You met me, and you helped me. I was with you the whole day.”

When you read this book, and when you stop to think about it, kindness really is at the core of just about everything good in this life. We encounter multiple opportunities every day to respond with kindness, just as we are often the recipients of the kindness of others.

510aS5svVvLThe second kindness book I read was Love Kindness: Discover the Power of a Forgotten Christian Virtue by Barry H. Corey. Why would I want to read a book written by an Evangelical who clearly and outspokenly believes that I am living a life of sin because I am a woman and I married a woman? Partly I wanted to read the book because I wanted to see what a staunch Evangelical would say about how to be kind to people you fundamentally disagree with on important issues. In what ways can I expect him to show kindness to me, and how should I be kind to him? And partly I wanted to read the book because the reviews said he was a good storyteller.

I wasn’t disappointed. The book is full of personal stories that illustrate how he learned to be kind in different circumstances. And what he learned not to do. Two key concepts he emphasized were to be “receivable” – to be welcoming of people with whom we have disagreements, and to have a “firm center with soft edges” – to be firm in our core beliefs as Christians, but to be softer, more flexible in less significant areas, which is often where our strongest disagreements foster hostility rather than loving kindness. One of the reviewers described the book this way:

Barry Corey is a kind man. He learned to be kind from his remarkable father. So Corey is well qualified – academically and spiritually – to write this book, a book that embodies the interesting approach of teaching different aspects of kindness through stories in his own life. For Corey, kindness is not niceness, adopting a position of compromise, or an expression of a desire to be received. Rather, it is learning to be receivable, and it is learning to dialog with those with whom we disagree with kindness in the way of Jesus. The number of issues that divide us is multiplying each day. As a result, there never has been a time other than now when Love Kindness is so desperately needed. Get this book, read it, discuss it with your friends and those whom you oppose. You’ll be glad you did. [J. P. Moreland – Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Biola University and author of The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters]

51vvcam7qfl-_sx326_bo1204203200_I saved the best book for last, and I just finished reading it a few days ago. Mike McIntyre is a newspaper columnist currently living in San Diego, although he has lived and worked as a journalist all around the world. Here’s the blurb about the book from Amazon.com:

Stuck in a job he no longer found fulfilling, journalist Mike McIntyre felt his life was quickly passing him by. So one day he hit the road to trek from one end of the country to the other with little more than the clothes on his back and without a single penny in his pocket. Through his travels, he found varying degrees of kindness in strangers from all walks of life – and discovered more about people and values and life on the road in America than he’d ever thought possible. The gifts of food and shelter he received along the way were outweighed only the the touching gifts of the heart – the willingness of many he met to welcome a lonely stranger into their homes … and the discovery that sometimes those who give the most are the ones with the least to spare.

This book has 40 short chapters, each one is the story of an encounter with a stranger who showed him kindness in some way as he hitchhiked penniless across America. A few of the stories were frightening, a few were sad, and many of them were remarkably inspiring. The stories gave fascinating glimpses into the lives of the Americans he met on his journey. In six weeks, Mike traveled 4,223 miles, crossed 14 states, accepted 82 rides, was given 78 meals and was invited to do the laundry in his backpack 5 times in the homes of drivers who offered him a bed for the night. On this journey, he found kindness expressed in ways he had never anticipated.

These three books on “kindness” provided three very different perspectives on the idea of “kindness.” I’m glad I read all three books, and I’m glad I chose “kindness” for my special word for 2016. My mom was onto something back in the 1950s when she made my 9-year-old brother Danny and 7-year-old me memorize the Bible verse Ephesians 4:32 –

kindness-1Be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you. 

Back then I thought her reason was to help Danny and me realize we needed to be nice to each other when we were home alone and she was away at work. Now I know she had more in mind. I think she knew, just like these three authors know, that kindness is the core virtue that can enrich everyone’s life.

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Jean: One of My Heroes

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Jean Gunnulson (8/16/35 – 11/25/16)

I met Jean Gunnulson 17 years ago. I had just agreed to be a substitute organist at the Oakland-Cambridge Presbyterian Church, and we were having our first music planning meeting. Four of us gathered together at 9:00 one morning in the church office – Pastor Dave, Cathy, Jean and myself.

The first thing I learned is that I wasn’t really a substitute. I was considered one of the regular organists. The first item on the agenda was to determine which Sundays Cathy, Jean, and I would each play over the next couple months. That was the easy part. Jean always played the first Sunday of the month which was the only Sunday communion was served. Cathy liked to play about once every 6 weeks. Jean and I divvied up the rest of the Sundays based on our personal schedules.

fullsizeoutput_1fbdThe next item on the agenda was to select the hymns for the congregation to sing, week by week, for the next couple of months or the upcoming liturgical season, such as Advent and Christmas. For the first Sunday in our planning window, Pastor Dave summarized the scripture readings from the revised common lectionary, and guessed at the theme he was likely to preach on. Jean came prepared with the current year’s edition of Prepare, a multi-denominational book that listed hymns that would be appropriate for each scripture reading. Jean then identified the hymns that the congregation knew and liked (or disliked) from the Prepare lists, and also which ones she had “recorded” on the organ’s midi system. Pastor Dave might suggest a new hymn the congregation could learn, and I watched Cathy and Jean debate the merits of that choice. Eventually, we all agreed upon the four or five hymns needed for a Sunday, and then we moved on to the next Sunday to plan.

In my first meeting, I was amazed at how heated this discussion became, and how long the meeting lasted. By noon, after three hours, we were all ready to go home for lunch, even though we were only half finished planning the hymns. We scheduled a follow-up meeting a couple weeks out to plan the rest of the hymns for that season. Jean may have come across as a bit crotchety in that first meeting, but she certainly was prepared, and it was obvious that she was committed to ensuring that good, appropriate music would be played at each service.

fullsizeoutput_1fc3Over the eight years that Jean, Cathy, and I shared the organist role for the church, I grew in my appreciation and love for Jean. She was a person with arthritis that was so severe that playing the organ was becoming almost impossible for her. But she was amazing at learning to adapt. Several years before I became involved, the church had invested in a new Allen digital organ. This organ was equipped with a midi device that enabled Jean to create a data file for each hymn that included an introduction and the correct number of verses. She could “record” and “re-record” the hymn as many times as necessary until it was “perfect” to her standards. If necessary, she could play and record the hymn very slowly, at the pace her arthritic fingers would tolerate. Then she could speed up the tempo when she played it back for the congregation to sing. Over the years, Jean created a library of dozens of 3-1/2 inch floppy disks that included hundreds of hymns.

One of the big challenges that Jean faced during the years that we worked together was the addition of a new hymnal supplement called Sing the Faith. In the 1990s and the early 2000s, there was a huge burst of new style church music charging across the country – contemporary hymns, praise music, and even Christian Rock. Many denominations, including the Presbyterian Church, came out with hymnal supplements to incorporate some of the best of this new music. Pastor Dave really wanted to begin to use some of this music in Cambridge. The church raised money to purchase the hymnal supplement. I had assumed that we would only use songs from the supplement on Sundays that either Cathy or I played. But Jean wasn’t willing to impose that restriction on our hymn selection for any Sunday. She spent many, many hours learning and then creating midi files for many of these new hymns. Some of them even became her new favorites – like “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry.”

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Jean really impressed me by her determination to provide organ music for congregational singing as well as preludes, offertories, postludes, and background service music, despite her physical limitations. But she impressed me even more by her commitment to providing quality children’s books for the church children’s library – both in Cambridge where she played a couple Sundays a month, and a Lutheran Church in Madison where she held membership. She was constantly on the lookout for good Christian books at all reading levels. She would scour resale stores in Madison and all the surrounding towns to find good books inexpensively to buy and donate to these church libraries. (Jean had been a teacher earlier in her life.)

But what impressed me most of all about Jean was her commitment to sending boxes and boxes of children’s clothing to Indian reservations in northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. She kept track of when each resale shop in the area had special sales for children’s clothing – especially the days when shoppers could fill a whole bag for a dollar or two. She would pick out warm and beautiful clothes to fill bags and bags for the children in these reservations. Then she and her husband David would box them up and ship them to the Indian reservations. Typically, they would spend more money on shipping costs than on the clothes.

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Jean’s health had been failing over the past couple years, and she passed away just before Thanksgiving. David asked me to play the piano at the funeral home for her visitation and funeral. He especially wanted me to play “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry.”

David also told me that there’s a bag of children’s clothing sitting on the floor in the corner in their house. He plans to box that up and ship it to the Indian reservation as soon as he can. Jean had shopped for these children as long as she could.

fullsizeoutput_1fc4Praise the Lord!
How joyful are those who fear the Lord
and delight in obeying his commands…
They share freely and give generously to those in need.
Their good deeds will be remembered forever.
[Psalm 112:1, 9]

Thanks, Jean, for all you have done, and for being an inspiration to me. Thanks for being one of my heroes.