The Power of Kindness

“Be nice to one another.  Be kind”.  It’s the sort of thing that we say when we’ve intervened between two squabbling children.  The word ‘kind’ can come across as a bit soft and fluffy.  Yet it’s more than that.

Last Autumn the BBC Radio 4 programme All in the Mind teamed up with the University of Sussex to find out what people thought and felt about kindness.  They wanted to know about its effects on people’s health and well-being.  Thousands of people completed the survey and the results are expected in the Spring.

But do we need a survey to know the power of kindness?  If we have experienced it, we know the power of kindness.  It’s there in a touch, a word, a gesture.  Someone listening, making a phone call, smiling, or stopping to talk to us.  During the pandemic, how many acts of kindness have helped people to survive?

In the Old Testament the Psalmist often speaks of God’s ‘loving kindness’.  Ruth demonstrates kindness and support to her mother-in-law, Naomi, in insisting on accompanying her back to her home town of Bethlehem after both their husbands die.  In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul says that kindness is one of the ‘fruits of the Spirit’ and he urges the people of Ephesus to “Be kind and compassionate to one another”.

Kindness is about love and connection.  It is allied to compassion, that commitment to put ourselves in the place of the other, to stand alongside them and to do what we can to lift their spirits and relieve their suffering.  And it can be expressed in a thousand different ways.

Be kind to one another.  That’s all there is to life.  Be at peace.  St. Columba

Chris Dawson

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Going round in Circles

As human beings we are tempted to think in straight lines.  Indeed in many ways we are encouraged to do so. 

In school we proceed from one year group into the next.  We are encouraged to think about the career path we are going to take, as if one step will lead straight to another and on to a clear destination. 

Here we are in mid January and we may have set some New Year resolutions.  Something out there that we want to achieve.  When it is ‘out there’ ahead of us, we can often falter.  We can end up experiencing a sense of disappointment and failure and a feeling of inadequacy.

What about thinking in terms of circles and cycles?  We are surrounded by such cycles – day and night, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, sunrise and sunset, sleeping and waking, childhood, youth and old age.

The Church too has its repeated cycle of remembrance and celebration.  Here we are in Epiphany, having celebrated Advent and Christmas, each stage bringing to us a different aspect and focus for us to reflect upon and from which to grow.  And it will all come round again next year and gives us another chance. 

When asked what was the basis for spiritual growth, the Dalai Lama replied with one word, “routine”.  Routine enables us to practise.  Monastic communities have always known this with their rhythm of contemplation and prayer throughout the day, re-created at St. George’s with the daily celebration of Morning Prayer.

We can begin anew each day and join the cycle at any point.  For, as the American poet Mary Oliver said:

“Things take the time they take.

Don’t –

worry.

How many roads did St. Augustine follow

before he became St. Augustine?”

Chris Dawson

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Jesus the Janitor

So here we are in January, the month named after the Roman god Janus, who, having two heads, was able to see in two directions at the same time .  As the janitor of the heavens, he decided who could enter and who could leave.  He presided over transitions, from the old to the new, from war to peace.  He guided travellers with the staff he carried in his right hand and opened doors and gates with the key in his left.

The origin of his name and of the month is the Latin word ‘ianua’ meaning ‘door’ or ‘gate’ – Latin has no letter ‘j’.  It is also the origin of the word ‘janitor’, the doorkeeper.  So a janitor is someone who enables people to come in and go out, to enter and leave, to pass through. 

In his famous picture, The Light of the World’, Holman Hunt depicts Jesus, lantern in hand, knocking at a door which is much overgrown with weeds.  Notably the door has no latch on the outside.  The door can only be opened from the inside.  That is the challenge of the painting.  We are all janitors of our own hearts and minds, gatekeepers of what comes in and goes out.

Jesus too can be the gatekeeper, a janitor who both invites us to enter and lets us in.  When Jesus is the gatekeeper we only have to knock and the door will be opened, to seek and we will find.  No key or staff is needed. 

Chris Dawson

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Sending Christmas Greetings

How did you get on with sending your Christmas cards?  Perhaps you don’t send cards, or, like me, you have a list that is getting a little shorter each year and still you race to catch the post.

The first commercial card was initiated by civil servant Sir Henry Cole in 1843.  He decided he hadn’t time to hand write individual messages and got an artist friend, John Horsley to design a card for him.  A thousand copies of the lithograph were printed and sold for a shilling each.  The card is a triptych, with a larger picture in the centre panel showing a family celebration and the side panels depicting the charitable acts of feeding and clothing the poor. Apparently Sir Henry was in trouble with the Temperance Movement for having  alcohol depicted on the card.

So what pictures do I want on my cards?  Bethlehem and the stable? Birds and animals in the winter landscape?  Villagers in the snow with the church lights glowing and the robed choir singing carols round a tree? Perhaps a selection so I can choose a card  appropriate to each family, relative or friend.  But that takes time and the last posting date is coming up!  What about a family photo Christmas card?   It’s a way of keeping personal contact and saves having to make choices about what card is appropriate for whom.  That would speed things up.

Another question: Am I going to write a Christmas letter?  If so what shall I say?  Everyone else’s family seems to be so successful and so perfect.  How come our children didn’t complete university and aren’t all in high powered jobs? I’ll leave it – again – this year.  I’ll just concern myself with how I sign off the card.  Is it ‘Best wishes’, or ‘Love’, or both?  And do I put a kiss?  Is that too intimate, especially if I haven’t been in contact for a year.  Perhaps I should just send everyone an email or a text.  Ah, but remember what that predictive text wrote last year:  ‘Have a lonely Christmas’.  One letter can make all the difference.

Chris Dawson

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What is Enough?

Ted is delighted.  On The Lane you can get a giant bar – and I mean giant.  It’s about 30 centimetres long – of his favourite Cadbury’s chocolate for £2.50.  It’s a bargain and he can eat it all at a single sitting.  In contrast, many who cultivate the cocoa harvest  will never have seen a chocolate bar, or tasted a piece of chocolate.

You may not like Cadbury’s chocolate, but what does take your fancy and tempts you to over-indulge at this festive time?  How pressured have you felt to make sure that you have plenty of food in for Christmas?  And what about those presents?  It’s a tricky one, isn’t it, because our consumption is someone else’s livelihood.  Our consumption is someone else’s profit and loss.

In last Sunday’s reading from Luke, John the Baptist is uncompromising in his stance: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  The fashion industry wouldn’t be keen on us all having only one coat, or shirt, or dress.  They need us to keep on buying.  In fact 300,000 tonnes of perfectly wearable clothes go into landfill every year so that we can keep up with the new season’s fashions.

Although they are the most obvious, food and drink and clothes are not the only objects of our consumption.  I heard of someone who kept his books on the mantel piece.  At the right hand end, below the mantelpiece was a cardboard box. When he bought a new book, he placed it on the left of the row and the book on the right dropped into the box.  The books in the box went to Oxfam.

Talking of books, what books and magazines do we choose to read?  What television programmes and films?  What websites and social media do we consume?  What about the content of our conversations?  Are they nourishing, uplifting and healing?  Does our consumption promote our well-being, the well-being of those around us and “Peace on earth”? 

Chris Dawson

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The Power of the Desert

What a wonderful paradox that the barren, harsh, empty desert is really a place from which renewal and change comes. 

Luke tells us that John found his inspiration and his voice in the wilderness and went about ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance’. Think again, think differently.  Change direction.  If we are prepared to enter it, the desert will helps us to see and act differently.  The desert is a place of spiritual revolution.

A stream was working its way across the country, experiencing little difficulty.  It ran down the mountains, rushed around the rocks, over the pebbles and through the fields with ease, until it arrived at a desert.  Just as it had crossed every other barrier, the stream tried to cross this one.  But as fast as it ran into the sand, its waters disappeared.  It kept trying, but after many attempts, it became very discouraged.  It seemed there was no way it could continue its journey.

Then it heard a voice in the wind.  “If you stay the way you are, you won’t be able to cross the sands.  You will turn into a quagmire.  To go further you will have to change.  You will have to lose yourself.”

“But if I lose myself, I will never know what I am supposed to be.”

“On the contrary,” said the voice, “if you lose yourself, you will become more than you ever dreamed you could be.”

So the stream surrendered to the dying sun and the clouds into which it was formed were carried by the strength of the wind for many miles.  Once across the desert the stream poured down as rain, fresh and clean and full of the energy that comes from a storm.

(Story adapted from Sufi Tales)

Chris Dawson

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Saving Christmas

I found myself reflecting on the Prime Minister’s desire to ‘save Christmas’.

A decree went through all the land

To save Christmas.

From what?  For what?  We knew not.

A poster with a red hatted,

Finger pointing Prime Minister

Told us this was serious.

A Government campaign.

A Tsar appointed,

Who knew about Christmas –

The tree, tinsel, toys and Amazon.

Drinks with friends on Christmas Eve

More drinks and lunch and watch the Queen….

So people spent, rejoiced, made merry.

A pandemic of goodwill across the land.

Christmas saved!

But we had forgotten…

A decree had gone out once before

And a baby born in an ox’s stall.

Chris Dawson

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Awake, Woke and Ready

Advent, the season leading us up to Christmas, is a time of waiting, of expectation, of moving towards.  A time when we are called to be awake and watchful.  As the well-known chorale, echoing Isaiah, urges us, “’Sleepers wake!  For night is flying.’  The watchmen on the heights are crying, ‘Awake, Jerusalem, at last!’”

Does that mean being woke?  Surely not.  To be called ‘woke’ is an insult hurled by those who think that someone is trying to be ‘right on’ as regards all the social issues trending at the present time.  Surely it has nothing to do with us Christians and our journey from darkness into light.

African American writer Bonnie Greer tells us that “….woke is, of course, African American jargon which goes back further than recent years.  Further than political correctness.  And its meaning is quite beautiful. 

“It means being awake to not only the possibility of escape from inhuman conditions, but of being awoke to the Divine.  To transcendence.  It is also about being awake to nature, to the sky and the trees and the air.

“Those of the enslaved who could, escaped using a series of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad.  One of the ways to chart the route north and therefore to freedom, was to keep the constellation Polaris in your eye and in your mind.  Escaped slaves, travelling along the route, had to move at night.  To get out of the South and to freedom they were told to stay awake – to be woke – and to ‘follow the Drinking Gourd’.  This is another term for the Big Dipper, that large asterism which consists of seven stars of the constellation Ursa Major.  Four define a bowl, three define a handle: the drinking gourd.  Within it is Polaris, the North Star, the pointer to freedom.

“I can remember being told by elders to ‘stay woke’, i.e. watch how I proceeded through the world, how I treated people; how I was treated.  I had to remember who I was; where I came from and what that all meant in the scheme of things.” (The New European #232, 18-24 February 2021)

That sounds a pretty good reason to be woke.

Chris Dawson

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The Power of Silence

The teams stood either side of the centre circle, the match officials at one end of the circle and a lone trumpeter next to a giant poppy at the other.  The referee blew his whistle and the trumpeter sounded the last post.  The crowd of five thousand stood in silence for a further two minutes.  Not a sound.  Just the bright moon above us.  The referee blew his whistle and the silence was broken.  That’s how it was at Stockport County before last Saturday evening’s match.

The next day, Remembrance Sunday, we stood at the St. George’s First World War memorial to stand in silence.  We stood there, a still point, as the traffic rushed by on the A6, hurried and noisy, a reminder of how  frenzied our everyday life can be.

In both cases, standing in silence was a powerful, collective, symbolic statement and a time of reflection.  But how comfortable are we with silence at other times in our lives? 

We may associate silence with coercion and punishment: school detentions, an angry parent not speaking for days on end, a group of friends ostracising us by not talking to us, solitary confinement.  In silence too we encounter ourselves, our uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, what is troubling us.  Such encounters encourage us to keep talking, to keep doing, to distract ourselves.  Yet if we sit and breathe for a moment, we can experience the positive power of silence and stillness.  We can learn gradually to become still.  To be with who we are. Like all things it takes practice, repeated, gentle practice.

We come from silence and to silence we return.  It is part of our natural state, but one that it is easy for us to neglect.  The composer Leonard Bernstein reminds us that being still and silent refreshes and enables us:  “Stillness is our most intense mode of action.  It is in our moments of deep quiet that is born every idea, emotion and drive which we eventually honour with the name of action.”  In silence we might also discover the power in the reminder to “Be still and know that I am God”.

Chris Dawson

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Random Remembrance

Richard, my Godson was a UN Military Observer in Bosnia in the 1990s.  In 2008 Richard was summoned to the International Criminal Court in the Hague to give evidence at the trial for war crimes of three Croatian generals. 

He writes of his first day on the job, ‘When I was driven across the front line into Bosnian Serb territory surrounding the enclave of Sarajevo, I was shocked to see how primitive the “confrontation” or “front line” was.  The trenches were hand dug and reinforced with tree trunks and we entered make-shift wooden huts with slits in.  There were remnants of stoves, campfires, military ammunition boxes, empty bottles of slivovica and beer, and dirty plates with leftovers.  A Bosnian Serb soldier, ammunition belt slung across his chest, invited us into the trench just 50 metres from the (visible to the naked eye) Bosnian Muslim army trench on the Sarajevo side.  “But there’s no one here?” I observed, wondering if I should duck and stay low in case the other side started shooting at us.  “No, no,” said the soldier.  “They went home to rest.  We were fighting this morning.  They will be back later.  They are our cousins, our family, Muslims, Serbs, Croats.  It’s politics.  It’s all just politics.”….One minute they were trying to kill each other, the next they literally waved at each other and asked how friends and family were doing inside and outside of the Sarajevo enclave.  It reminded me of the Christmas Day truce in World War One when  German soldiers climbed out of their trenches to toast, meet and play football with French and British soldiers.’

Richard’s great uncle, my father, was a teenager in those trenches.  Wounded at the first Battle of the Somme in 1916, he recovered and fought at Vimy Ridge in 1917. Wounded again, he was invalided out, sent home and spent the rest of the war as an instructor.  He seldom spoke of his experiences and had nightmares for the rest of his life. 

The red poppy, a symbol of remembrance of those who have died fighting for their country, was first adopted by The (Royal) British Legion in November, 1921.  It raises about £50 million a year.  “Wearing a poppy is a show of support for the service and sacrifice of our armed forces, veterans and their families”, (Royal British Legion website).  The white poppy was first distributed in 1933 by the Co-operative Women’s Guild.  In 1936 the newly formed, Peace Pledge Union (PPU) began to distribute it.  The PPU emerged from an initiative by ‘Dick’ Shepard, Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  The white poppy symbolises remembrance for all victims of war throughout the world, civilian or military.  It also  symbolises a commitment to promoting peace.  Sales of the white poppy in 2020 raised £44,926.

Chris Dawson

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