The Very Revd. John Witcombe, Dean of Coventry Cathedral
A woman goes for a chest x-ray in a big teaching hospital. The X-ray department is in the basement of the hospital, a maze of corridors. When she comes out she is disorientated.
A porter sees her and asks where she is trying to go. She explains that she is looking for the exit. He directs her and she is grateful. She walks a little way and then thinks she recognises where she is and begins to push open a door. A voice calls to her. It’s the same porter. “It’s not that way,” he says. “Follow me, I’ll take you to the exit.”
The woman is momentarily disarmed. He had been kind enough to direct her in the first place. But this waiting, this checking she had understood what he said, and then calling after her, had taken the kindness a step further. She felt noticed, cared for. Her need had become his concern, and he saw it through to the end.
In itself it was simple enough. A random act of kindness. But in the course of a day of intense appointments, it was a transforming moment for the woman. A chink of light breaking through, changing the day’s trajectory.
The word kindness is scattered through the bible like seasoning. It is used to describe God, but is something required of God’s children too. Sometimes the ancient language translates as ‘loving-kindness’, and it’s a tiny step from this to the concepts of mercy and grace – hard to tell the difference between them; the words all come together in the heart of God, words that tell us what God is like. Kindness, mercy, grace – these are all about an unstoppable overflowing of love and gift on those who do not deserve it. Kindness contains within it a sense of likeness – we speak of being of the same kind as another. And it also contains the word kin – we are of the same kind as each other, and the same kin … at heart we are family, we belong. We are the same.
The golden rule of many religions is that we should do as we would be done by – Jesus said, love your neighbour as yourself. It holds a recognition that we are all neighbours. The way we connect with one another creates the trellis for humanity to grow – or it becomes the scaffold on which we wither. It’s a recognition that Provost Howard understood, when he had the words ‘Father forgive’ chalked on the apse of the newly bombed cathedral in Coventry. Not ‘father forgive them’ – he said we are all responsible for what has happened, we stand together or we do not stand at all. We are kin, we are the same kind, even when we are enemies. And in his Christmas Broadcast from the ruins only six weeks later he used these words: “with Christ born again in our hearts today, we are trying, hard as it may be, to banish all thoughts of revenge. . . . We are going to try to make a kinder, simpler, a more Christ Child-like sort of world in the days beyond this strife.”
Kindness, like love, places itself in the shoes of another and seeks to look at the world through their eyes. It’s not about satisfying a need to be needed, nor a need to be right. The porter saw that the woman was lost. He gave what he had and she needed – the knowledge of direction – and it changed her day. Kindness makes one person’s need another person’s concern – we see it lived out in the Christian faith in the person of Jesus, who poured out his life for the human race in a deep overflowing of divine kindness.
To receive real kindness is always disarming. We have to hold out our hands to it, and let go of the defences we carry. It weakens us, but then it strengthens us because we exist so much better together. To receive the kindness of God is even more disarming and even more life giving. It happens when we reach the end of ourselves; for some of us that takes a long time and demands a simplicity that can be hard to find. But at its heart is life.