When I was a teen, this phrase came into vogue: "Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty." You saw it on car bumper stickers everywhere, and many mornings sitting in assembly, our school headmaster would address us about kindness using this phrase. My high school was secular, and I remember family discussions - lightly theological - around our dinner table about the slogan. Kindness and beauty are not in fact random or senseless, my parents said. They're purposeful and ordered - signposts of a present and intentional God. Whether we realize it or not, they said, all kindness and beauty stem from - and belong to - God. We practice them not randomly but as a participants in his kingdom. By him and through him. True points.
All this comes to mind in thumbnail sketch whenever I hear the "random acts of kindness" phrase. So it jumped right to the fore when I chanced across this red, bordered image in my Facebook news feed.
A "Random Acts of Christmas Kindness" Advent calendar. Interesting. I loved the idea of a simple, practical service acts as part of Advent. So I printed the thing and decided to give it a try.
It's been great so far. On Day 1 when the act was to give a compliment, the kids and I discussed the nature of compliments. What makes a good one? Is it better to say, "I like your dress" or, "I think you're brave" (and why)? Day 2's act of taping change to a vending machine generated a lengthy conversation about the nature and spirit of gift-giving. What if someone just took the change and pocketed it, instead of using it to buy a snack or beverage as we intended? Does using a gift in an alternate way nullify the gift's goodness or our generosity? Creating cards for soldiers on Day 3 (I confess it's the first time we've ever done anything for our military) prompted conversation about our military, their job and sacrifice, their residential situation when deployed, and why they might be especially pleased to find citizens of their homeland thinking about them at Christmas-time. Day 4's "take coffee to your teacher" had them wondering about the beverage preferences of their-real-people-with-real-lives teachers. And fighting (of course) over who got to carry the cup into their shared teacher.
So pleased was I by the happenings connected to the Advent calendar and its activities (especially since the ideas are generally quick to implement) that I started an enthusiastic conversation with one of my children about it. Was she enjoying it? "Not really," she said. "It just means more things we have to think about and do in the day." I don't think her reply was wholly true - especially since I see the kids checking the chart to see what's coming up - but I'm sure it was partly true. Because, why wouldn't it be true? Being kind is inconvenient, often. It takes time. Sometimes it requires an extra trip someplace, standing in a line, or giving up something (whether a tangible thing, attention, or leisure time).
This, I think, is the piece of the puzzle I missed in theological rumination at my high-school-era dinner table. The best thing about random acts of kindness is that they are specific and intentional acts, and doing them builds up our kindness muscles. It enlarges our awareness of the goodness that might be displayed in any (or every) situation. Performing specific acts of kindness trains the brain to become mindful of other people- and to contemplate what might bless them. And it trains the soul to relish the simple joy that can be brought to another through a small service. I think this kind of training becomes habit over time and extends, moving from 'random' to 'regular.' It becomes an education in virtue, a form of character development.
But there's more.
Because I realize that "random" can also mean "unexpected." Or "not deserved; disconnected from merit." It can carry the sense of "out-of-the-ordinary" or "lavishly given." And it strikes me that these concepts are exactly appropriate for Advent, the season of quiet waiting for glory. The coming of holy grace in human form. During Advent, we anticipate an undeserved gift from the God of all Kindness, who comes in the form of a small child - the most seemingly (though not) random thing of all. And yet also the Best.
John Wesley famously said, "Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can." Widespread acts of intentional kindness.
May those of us who love Jesus especially understand the importance of these types of kindness. May we do them intentionally. May we see ourselves as extensions of the light we have in Jesus as we perform them, and may we excel in them. In Advent... and always.