March 31, 2020

Raspberry Wars, Part Two: Kindness

“I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.” – Charles Schultz

I stood at the gate of my raspberry garden admiring the beauty of the place. I’d been working diligently there for months and it showed. The plants were green and well watered, the ground uncluttered, the perimeters trim and the berries a deep magenta. From that distance, the picture was perfect, like an artist’s rendering. Then I stepped inside to begin my evening’s work.

On my knees, I saw details I didn’t notice from outside the gate. Small weeds had appeared that weren’t there yesterday. Japanese beetles clung in clumps to several of the leaves. Overripe fruit I’d missed the evening before dripped into a sticky mess and a few of my stubborn plants refused to be trained no matter how hard I tried. Instead they draped themselves over other plants and dragged them down. Suddenly, I felt frustrated.

What is true in the raspberry garden is true in the body of Christ. As terrible as it will prove me to be, I’ll let you in on a little secret. In my self-centeredness, I completely agree with Charles Schultz. Mankind, in general, seems noble and lovable. Individuals, up close and personal, can at times be … well, you know.

During one season, a young woman I met at church latched onto me and wouldn’t let go. Suddenly, I was on deck to entertain every Sunday afternoon, cook every Sunday evening and get involved in all her dramas. I began to resent it intensely. I was tired from working at my office all week, writing at night, doing housework and caring for my own family. My one afternoon to chill was turning into tiresome labor that ushered me into the new week running on empty.

Sunday mornings I’d stand in church worshipping God and feeling a sense of unity with his people. As soon as it was over, I was struggling internally to dredge up some graciousness for the person who was about to monopolize my day. That circumstance was only a minor annoyance, relatively speaking. There have been times I’ve experienced deep hurts, either intentionally or unintentionally, by others. The point is that it’s easy to talk about reacting with kindness, but it is hard to do, especially after experiencing ugliness at the hands of someone else.

I’ve noticed something about my raspberry plants. They’re never quite what they seem on the surface. Usually, I need to look a bit closer to see what’s really going on with them. In the same way, the people in my path need me to open my eyes wider and see their struggles as well as their unique personalities. If I don’t, I can’t possibly be kind, let alone find appreciation for them. It’s also something I long for others to do for me.

Our job is simple; it’s to love the gardener first and each other second. Jesus summed up the two greatest commandments in Matthew 22: 37-39: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Simple? Yes. Easy? No.

Most of us have been through a few wars before we arrived in the garden, but a very nasty surprise is the warfare that occurs in the garden. It’s God’s garden after all. Shouldn’t it be perfect? We want it to be. Nevertheless, churches split, schools split and marriages split. We disagree with each other. We annoy one another. We let each other down. We inflict incredible hurt. Sometimes, we simply don’t appreciate each other because we see things from such varied perspectives. As a result, our emotional generosity toward others begins to ebb. We become disillusioned and hardened. Practicing kindness begins to feel too risky and a bit naïve.

I have a friend who once spent some time on retreat in a convent. The nun she grew close to during her visit was in her ninth decade of life. Sarah asked her what she had learned in all her years of service there. With a quavering voice, the nun said, “I have learned to be kind.”

The key word there may be ‘learned.’ Left to our own devices, we will be self-serving. Kindness is something we need to cultivate. I think the foundational step to cultivating kindness is gaining a different perspective.

Standing outside the fence or even among my plants, I don’t always see their unique characteristics. I can easily miss the pests that are bothering them or the tangles that trouble them until I get down on my knees among them and peer closely.

Remember that person who liked to deprive me of my Sunday naps and quiet reading sessions? It turned out the big attraction was my family. Hers had disintegrated when she was a girl and she was struggling now as a young woman to solidify her character and make good decisions. She was just like I was in earlier years and she was like some of my raspberry plants I tried constantly to train to stand up. Every evening I’d find them fallen over or leaning on another plant. My new friend needed to lean so she wouldn’t fall.

Another time, I remember visiting my daughter’s school when she was about eleven. A surprise baby had just displaced her as our youngest and I was intent on giving her some extra attention to help ease the transition. Besides, her classmates were enthralled with her tiny sister when we visited for lunch and walked her back to the classroom afterwards. But the more I visited the angrier I got.

One boy continuously disrupted the class and demanded so much of the teacher’s time that she resorted to passing out worksheets to keep the other kids busy while she dealt with his insults, threats and wild behavior. She always remained calm and patient, but I began to get indignant. There are 25 kids in this class, I thought. Why should one of them cause such chaos for everyone?

I found out the reason after witnessing a particularly upsetting episode. “He’s angry for good reason,” the teacher told me. “His mother left the family and he hasn’t seen her in three years. His father remarried then abandoned him as well. He now lives with an overwhelmed stepmother who doesn’t really love him.”

Those words were like a knife plunging into my heart. I was ashamed of myself for the way I’d thought about him. A tiny bit of new information let me see him from a different perspective. He was a severely damaged plant that needed an incredible amount of attention, perhaps at the expense of some of the others plants. It was a matter of survival for him. There was no way this young one would be able to bear fruit until he was healed.

A few years ago, my pastor formed a team to do prison ministry and I went to the training. I remember our facilitator telling us that though we thought we’d be taking Christ into the prisons with us, we’d find him already there.

I’d been with the team on several visits to juvenile facilities as well as to lower security men’s and women’s facilities. Then we were asked to spend an entire day at a maximum-security men’s prison. We checked in, emptied personal items into lockers, went through metal detectors, removed our shoes and stood with arms spread for pat downs.

Then we entered a cage the size of a maintenance elevator and squeezed to the middle while the electronic gate closed. The door on the opposite side opened and spilled us into a hallway where we were met by guards who accompanied us to a massive exterior courtyard encircled by the cellblocks. There, a special patrol unit with M16s slung on their backs and canines on leashes met us with the warning, “Stay on the sidewalk and do not run.”

We crossed the courtyard to jeers, both sexual and violent, by inmates who yelled from windows. I felt vulnerable and uncomfortable even with an armed escort.

Who needs this, I thought. Jesus Christ here?

On the other side, we entered a building again, mounted steps to a sultry second floor room where we were turned over to a group of prison trustees and their chaplain to set up equipment for three different concerts that day. It was like entering a different world. The trustees treated us with incredible kindness and scrambled to serve us. They set up chairs, carried equipment, gave us water bottles and thanked us repeatedly for coming.

As the day wore on, we spent the time between the concerts getting to know the trustees and hearing their stories. All of them were incarcerated for violent crimes with no chance of parole. Some had consecutive life sentences, the result of heinous offenses. Yet, all of them were now believers because of their chaplain’s ministry to them. All of them were now intent on spending their lives of captivity introducing others to Christ. Yes, Jesus Christ was hidden away in a maximum-security prison producing fruit most people would never see. Isn’t it just like God to surprise us like that?

I thought of the small raspberry plants in my garden that grow hidden beneath the others and whose fruit remain invisible under leaves that cover them. I always miss those berries unless I get on my knees, lower my head and look up. The position is uncomfortable, but worth the result.

In other instances, my plants get stubborn and break the bounds of my garden fence. It used to bother me. Raspberry plants look so untidy growing outside the confines of the garden. Finally, I gave up trying to keep them in line and decided to just enjoy their fruitfulness. They’re actually some of my best bearers.

I know a few Christ followers like that. Some are friends; one is a son-in-law. They refuse to conform to all the rules “churchianity” (I’m borrowing from Michael Spencer here) likes to impose. They routinely shock with their boldness, deviate from expectations and minister in unconventional ways and in unconventional places. They are prophets and visionaries. They understand the times and know what needs to be done. They embrace people on the edges of societal norms. They aren’t fazed by some of the more raw issues of life. They forsake formulas, thrive in ministry situations that terrify the faint of heart, but consistently and fearlessly introduce people to the Rabbi.

We need to thank the people who get outside the fence. We need to enjoy their fruit. A friend told me recently that her son spent a lot of time telling others about Christ, but that she couldn’t stand the radical way he wore his hair. “Do the people he’s talking to look like he does,” I asked. She said they did. “Then he’s doing just what Jesus did for us.”

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14) I’m pretty sure he saw from heaven the hot mess each of us would be. We’re damaged. We’re weak. We’re stubborn. We’re sinful. Yet, he loves us in spite of all that and won’t let the damage or unkindness we’ve suffered or inflicted be wasted. He’s chosen each of us to bear fruit, yes, even lasting fruit and is bent on bringing us to our full potential. There is no greater kindness than that the maker of the heavens and earth would get down on his knees among us, peer closely, know us intimately and love us furiously. Can we do any less for each other?

(Part 3 will discuss the fruit that remains.)

Comments

  1. I know when I have not “felt” loving towards people, Christians would tell me that the important thing was still to ACT loving toward them. That is certainly better than NOT acting loving toward them, but I surely wish that behaving with kindness and love toward others came more naturally to me. I can understand Schultz’ “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand” all too well, I am afraid. I am more apt to just avoid people I don’t really like so that I don’t have to feel dishonest around them. It’s hard, though, if those people happen to be family members. Luckily, I love my family.

    • Lisa Dye says

      I understand what you mean, Joanie. Sometimes, I think kindness is a form of suffering, or at least the laying down of our rights or natural inclinations.

    • As long as it is a person one-to-one, I’m fine. When it becomes a group-dynamic thing, I’m lost.

  2. I have never heard that quote by Charles Schultz, but I love it. I’ve always called myself a misanthrope who loves people … from a distance. I always figured it came with the territory of being a decidedly non-social introvert.

  3. I have learned to be kind.

    This is why we need older people in our lives and in our churches.

    • I’m still learning, Chaplain Mike – more slowly than I would like. I completely agree with you about needing older people in our lives. They teach us so much.

  4. Wow, great stuff Lisa. This is why you are such an encouragement- you are a shepherd with a prophet’s heart and rare is your type.

    It is so difficult to see people as the Rabbi does (even for those of us on the “routinely shock with their boldness, deviate from expectations and minister in unconventional ways and in unconventional places”)… I have some amazing people that allow me to speak into their lives. Just in the past few days a few of them offered to give regular time and put themselves under my tutelage (only Jesus knows why). The one requirement I gave them as I turned over the reins on some things was that- as they laid out meetings, programs, events, and trips- is that I would always say, “Yes”, if they could tell me that these were the things the Rabbi would be involved with, blessing, and encouraging.

    Given your words, it always sounds as if you understand a healthy portion of your Rabbi. Blessings.

  5. Great reminder, Lisa. I especially appreciated your emphases on the effort it takes to look closely, and the appreciation of those who break some of the boundaries.

  6. I agree about kindness, Lisa. I’ve noticed recently that kindness seems to be the bottom line when I’m disciplining my kids — that all the other problems they have in getting along with others and themselves would fade with the practice of kindness. I like the King James Bible word describing God’s quality of “lovingkindness.”

  7. Thanks, Lisa. Good bread for the journey. Your analogy of raspberries has me grieving the loss of my own patch since moving to another part of the country last year.

    1 Cor 13 reminds us that love is kind. Love and kindness is occasionally natural or easy for me but it has also been an obligation, an act of self righteousness, an inconvenience or sacrifice. I think all but one can be the nature of kindness and love. They are self giving acts in which we can feel both the cost and the blessing of. The more I learn to abide in the kindness and selfgiving love of God, the less mindful I am of ME in all of this, which is a grace in itself.

    I’m also reminded of the famous quote attritbuted to Plato, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle”.

  8. Beautiful, Lisa. Thank you for this.