Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
November 3, 2002

Let me begin by reading you a true story from a book called Random Acts of Kindness.

I have been going to the same ... coffee shop every Sunday for years. One morning in the middle of a great dreary drizzly weekend, I trudged in dripping wet ... and ordered my usual bagel with lox and cream cheese and an espresso. I was casually informed that my coffee had already been paid for. ... the young woman at the register just smiled and said someone paid for twenty coffees and you are number eight. I sat there for almost an hour, reading my paper, and watching more surprised people come in to find their morning coffee pre-paid. There we all were, furtively at first and then with big funny smiles on our faces, looking at everyone else in the restaurant trying to figure out who had done this incredible thing, but mostly just enjoying the experience as a group. It was a beautiful blast of sunshine on an otherwise overcast winter day. (Random Acts of Kindness, Conari Press, p. 133.)

Such a small gesture, and such a dramatic impact! Like a blast of sunshine on an otherwise dreary day.

In the past few years a grass roots kindness movement has been growing, and this is good news because in so many ways this is an age of unkindness, insensitivity, and even cruelty. If you want success on radio or TV, be as nasty as possible. Scold like Dr. Laura; rant like Michael Savage; imitate the BBC’s Anne Robinson, who picks on the "weakest link." If you want to win elections, sling lots of mud, especially at the last minute when there's no time to respond. And as hostility increases, humanitarianism decreases. The Rev. Scott Alexander has described our condition as "Humanity Fatigue."

...we live in times of rapidly diminishing human connectedness ... Everywhere you turn, messages both justifying and encouraging our withdrawal from one another can be heard. People are no longer reluctant or ashamed to say, "That's their problem; I just can't care for all of humanity." (Quest, January, 1996, p. 6)

We have grown tired of feeding the hungry and providing for the poor. We have grown tired of looking at the homeless and caring for the millions ... with AIDS and other disabilities ... We have grown tired of trying to fix the inner cities with all their unemployment, poverty and crime ... We have grown tired of the hard work that a multi-cultural society demands ... We have a bad case of Humanity Fatigue. (Quest, March, 1995, p.1)

How can we recover from Humanity Fatigue? Those Unitarian Universalists who follow a traditional religion can draw upon the teachings and the familiar stories from these faiths. The Talmud teaches that, "The beginning and end of Torah is performing acts of loving kindness." (Random Acts of Kindness, Conari Press, p. 70) Jesus said, "If you love me, then feed my sheep." Islam teaches that faithful Muslims must give away their "wealth to ... the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and those who ask, ..." (The Quran, quoted by Noss, Man's Religions, p. 739) In some Christian churches people are told to ask themselves in every situation, "What would Jesus do?" and one Jewish member of our congregation sometimes asks himself, "What would Moses do?" We could also ask "What would Muhammad do?" Or Krishna or Confucius or the Buddha or Mother Teresa?

Of course, not all of us base our compassion upon religious teachings. Pearl S. Buck once wrote, "I feel no need for any other faith than my faith in the kindness of human beings .... I am so absorbed in the wonder of earth and the life upon it that I cannot think of heaven and angels." (Random Acts of Kindness, Conari Press, p. 131) She was expressing a humanistic sense of kindness, and some humanists would look to exemplars of moral integrity who are not mainly associated with religion.

But regardless of whether we are traditionally religious, all of us have this in common: we thrive when we are loving. After you do something thoughtful for someone, how do you feel? At least 90% of the time I find myself uplifted. I find myself thinking, "this feels right; this is the way I was meant to be."

Of course, my selfish side wants my good deeds to be tangibly rewarded, and occasionally this happens. Two friends of Jo Ann driving in the Nevada desert took a freeway offramp to stop and rest. As soon as they got out of their car, someone rushed up and told them that their tire was flat. He had been following them for miles, having noticed the problem. After they thanked him profusely, the stranger said, "I wouldn't have stopped, but I noticed your bumper sticker that says, ‘Practice Random Acts of Kindness.'" They had displayed the bumper sticker as a favor to the world, and they got a favor in return.

Or consider this story from the Internet:

One night, at 11:30 PM, an older African American woman was standing on the side of an Alabama highway trying to endure a lashing rain storm. Her car had broken down ... Soaking wet, she decided to flag down the next car.

A young white man stopped to help her, generally unheard of in those conflict-filled 1960s. The man took her to safety ... and put her into a taxicab. She ... wrote down his address and thanked him. [After seven days] ... a giant console color TV was delivered to his home. A ... note was attached.... Thank you so much for assisting me on the highway the other night. The rain drenched not only my clothes, but also my spirits. Then you came along. Because of you, I was able to make it to my dying husband's bedside just before he passed away. God bless you for helping me and unselfishly serving others."

That message alone would have been a wonderful reward, even without the huge TV set. But the woman had the means to send a lavish gift and so she did. The letter was signed, "Sincerely, Mrs. Nat King Cole."

Thanks to Cindy Bruhn for sending me that story along with some other good ones.

Most people first heard the phrase "Random Acts of Kindness" on an Oprah Winfrey Show which was seen by over 11 million viewers in 1994. Evidently the idea was born in 1982 when Ann Herbert, a visionary pacifist and writer from Marin, suggested that the world would be a better place if people practiced "random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty." Rather than restrict ourselves to being nice in conventional and habitual ways, we can act on impulse, doing people favors when they least expect it. By now the term "random acts of kindness" has been extended to any unusual kindness, even if it is not literally random.

A little while ago, you talked with someone in the congregation about kindnesses that you have given and received. I would love to hear some examples now, regardless of whether these would qualify as random acts. [Discussion]

Perhaps these examples are giving us new ideas about how we could extend good will to others. To go back to the idea of random acts, why not go into an ice cream parlor and buy a few ice creams for the next several children who come in? When you see that somebody's parking meter has expired, why not drop in a quarter? Just twenty-five cents buys a lot more than two bits worth of happiness. When the service in a restaurant has been exceptionally good, why not leave a note on the bill, specifying what you appreciated the most - plus a generous tip? Or perhaps you could find some way to bring a touch of beauty into an otherwise sterile setting.

Earlier in the service, Allysson shared a story called "Because Bryan Hugged His Mother." We've all heard that "what goes around comes around," which often means that people who are nasty will eventually get their comeuppance. But good things come around, too. Catherine Hyde celebrates this principle in her book, Pay It Forward. In this novel, twelve-year-old Trevor receives an extra credit assignment from his teacher: "think of an idea for world change, and put it into action." So Trevor decides to do a good deed for three people, asking each of them to "pay it forward" to three others instead of paying it back to him. Mathematically, if people kept paying favors forward this way, in about twenty rounds every person on the planet might have benefitted.

Talking about kindness gives us a warm little glow, but are we actually going to put these ideas into practice? Are we ready for an extra-karma assignment? Suppose I were to ask you right now to raise your hand and make a commitment to practice kindness this next week, by doing something impulsively, at random, or out of the ordinary? Would your hand go up or would it stay in your lap? If it went up, would that be due to social pressure? And if you left your hand down, would that be out of refusal to be manipulated? I'm not going to ask for a show of hands, but let's check ourselves out. Are we ready to stretch the circle of our own compassion by practicing kindness this week? Even when we choose the path of the familiar rather than venturing into the unfamiliar, understanding why we hold ourselves back can be a big step forward. Whatever we choose, we can make our choices consciously.

Although I am focusing on random acts this morning, the kindness revolution also needs people who practice more traditional ways of being thoughtful. And one way to grow in thoughtfulness toward others is to become part of a community and practice compassion within that community. In a spiritual community such as this one we can organize ourselves so as to serve others better. Many of you have helped members and friends of Mission Peak. After Ali Shahdi developed cancer, Ursel Bloxsom drove him to Stanford for a radiation treatment. Janet Wilson, the coordinator of the Caring Committee, sometimes asks people to assist with special needs such as this one. We also develop service projects to help people outside of our congregation. Our Social Concerns Associates group has invited us to help address the needs of Afghans, both here and overseas, and Josie Poniatowski has collected and delivered goods that we have donated for this purpose. For the past several years during November and December, we have brightened the holiday season for disadvantaged children through the Adopt An Angel and Gifts From the Heart programs.

Albert Schweitzer said, "I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve." (Random Acts of Kindness, Conari Press, p. 38). Many of us here have already learned that fundamental life lesson.

One advantage of practicing kindness within a face-to-face community is that we get to know each other well enough to tailor our responses to each other's personalities. This comes in handy when we need to deal with a sticky situation in a sensitive way.

There's a story about Winston Churchill which illustrates this idea. Churchill was part of a very unusual sort of community, that of the English nobility. But just as often happens here at Mission Peak, he figured out how to be compassionate in a way that fit a particular situation and a particular individual's personality.

A wealthy English lady was holding a large and lavish dinner party. At one point she was startled to see one of the English lords in attendance surreptitiously slip into his pocket one of her heirloom salt and pepper shaker sets. She was dismayed that he would steal from her, but she knew it would cause a terrible scene if she directly confronted the light-fingered lord.

Winston Churchill happened to be at that party, and the hostess confided in him about what had happened. After some reflection, Churchill went to a table where one of the salt and pepper sets was located. When no one was looking, he slipped a set into his pocket! He then sidled up to the thief and took him aside for a private conversation. Opening his own pocket, Churchill disclosed the set that he had lifted. He then said, "I think they're on to us. Perhaps it would be better if we put them back."

What a brilliant strategy for confronting someone without slamming head-on into the other person's ego. In fact, Churchill managed to join that person, to make a gesture saying, "I'm on your side" - and he did so in a way in a way that generated perplexity and even bewilderment. "Is Churchill a thief? Did he steal after seeing me do it? What is going on?" When the trickster sets our minds spinning, we become more open to change.

It sometimes seems as if life is one long gingerly journey through a minefield of oversensitive egos. In this congregation I have seen people employ all sorts of inventiveness, tact, and diplomacy when we need to say something to someone that touches a tender spot. No doubt we have a lot to learn, but in general we really do try to respect each other's feelings. The better we know each other, the better we can do that.

Next Sunday I'll conclude this sermon series by asking, "exactly what does it mean to be kind and how do we learn to do that?" I'll share some stories that teach remarkable lessons about these questions. We'll enjoy music by the Peak Performers, and we'll listen to each other's reports about how we tried to show our caring during the next seven days.

We have had enough petty anger and abrasiveness in this country. It's time for the pendulum to swing back toward compassion. The moment is here for a kindness revolution, and every person in this room is a potential revolutionary.

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