A Vintage Kindness

Not long into David’s tenure as king, he asked an interesting question, “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” (II Samuel 9:1).  David’s question had to have shocked his cabinet, especially when the universal custom of the day was for the new king to immediately exterminate the remaining members of his predecessor’s family.  But after some thinking, Saul’s grandson, Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan, is mentioned.  “Go get him,” David says in so many words.  He was anxious to show him kindness.  

Kindness has often been confused with niceness, and this is unfortunate.  Dr. Barry Corey, president of Biola University, argues well in his forthcoming book that kindness and niceness must never be confused. Niceness has a gooey, conviction-less core, with spongy edges.  At the other extreme of niceness is acidic aggression, or meanness, with its hard core and abrasive edges.  Then there’s kindness.  Kindness, Dr. Corey says, has a firm core, filled with courage and conviction, yet surrounded by soft edges.  I like this. One of the words translated as kindness in the Bible, was used of wine that mellowed with age to the point where its acidic bite had dissipated, and what you were left with was a smooth cabernet. That’s the picture God wants us to have of kindness- a firm core that doesn’t shy from the truth, with soft edges.

There’s another difference between kindness and niceness, though. Often times people are nice for transactional purposes.  You know, a kind of quid pro quo ethic.  I do something nice for you in the hopes you’ll return the favor.  Servers in the food industry are confronted with this every working day.  Be nice and get a nice tip.  Be really nice, and get an even better tip.  I’m not placing any moral value on this, I’m just holding up a warning sign. The moment our niceness crosses over into a sort of utilitarianism where people become objects for our advancement, we are a step or two from meanness.  So what happens when the server or barista doesn’t perform to my liking? I can tell you first hand what happens.

Several years ago I sat down to breakfast with my son at a local diner. When the server first came to our table I knew something was wrong.  She had anything but soft edges.  This woman had “don’t mess with me,” written all over her face.  Words like, rude, short and abrasive came to mind.  As if this wasn’t enough, she messed up our order, and offered a meager, disingenuous apology.  I was heated. Didn’t she know she existed to make my day better?  So I left the gratuity section of the bill blank, yanked my son out of the diner and headed off.  Then the Holy Spirit began speaking to me, showing me how my utilitarian outlook on her had set the stage for me responding to her meanness with an extra helping.  I made a pit stop at the bank, pulled out some cash, then headed back to the diner. When I finally got to speak to her, in vintage cabernet tones I told her that while I felt she could have done better, my response was unkind.  I asked her for forgiveness then gave her the money.  Then she surprised me.  A tear trickled down her once hardened face.  For the next several moments she unloaded, telling me about the divorce she’s going through, the tough financial times and the difficulty she’s having with one of her kids.  Sure, while kindness had broken her, I found her response to my kindness elevating my vision of her.  She was no longer a nameless server who existed for my convenience, but a real person with a story.  I guess kindness got to both of us.

David’s motivation to show kindness to what would ultimately be Mephibosheth, had nothing to do with Mephibosheth.  Look at verse one again, “…for Jonathan’s sake”. David’s kindness to Mephibosheth had nothing to do with his ability to perform, or a hope David would get it back some day, no, that’s a utilitarian, quid pro quo niceness. There was a higher moral vision at play. David had entered into covenant with Jonathan, Mephibosheth’s father, and it was that covenant, not Mephibosheth’s performance, that stimulated David’s kindness.  In fact, Mephibosheth had no ability to ever return it back to David. Several times the text mentions he was crippled, literally unable to perform.

I hope you see what’s going on here.  In case you missed it, we are all Mephibosheth, enemies of God from another domain, crippled in our ability to meet His standard for us.  But God- symbolized by David- shows us a performance-free kindness, saving us by his grace.  Thank God he doesn’t see me with a utilitarian niceness, but with a vintage kindness.

This is a helpful word for me as we embark on the political season, and with all of the racial turmoil in our country.  We need a vintage kindness as we prepare to go into the voting booth, one that has a firm core, with smooth edges.  As we process Sandra Bland, and any other future instances of what appears like police brutality, I’m reminded as a minority to be kind, to stand up for justice, but to do so with open arms, willing to embrace the other.  And living in the digital age, we don’t need another instance of what one New York Times writer calls, “outrage porn,” where we go bazerk on someone’s Facebook page, Twitter account, or in the comments section of a blog.  Let’s be kind, not nice.  If we Christians have any hopes of restoring our influence and unmuting our voice in the public square, it can only happen when we take on a vintage kindness.