Does the phrase mean for good, as in, that’s the last hurrah for praise? Or does it mean to give thanks to God who is good? Probably both. Whatever its exact meaning is, it kindles warm love in me.
I think of Psalm 136 in which— over and over— we give thanks for the goodness of God’s imprint on the world and say in refrain: “ . . . for his mercy endures for ever.” In Pamela Greenberg's translation of 136 the refrain is. “. . . for God’s kindness is toward the world.” Kindness sounds fresh to my ears and to my heart. Why?
-it’s more intimate than mercy
-kind relates to kin….I think of kindling to get a fire ablaze
-it’s not condescending, toned with superiority
-it’s not love, love, and more love
-it’s not gendered
-it’s reverently vernacular
-I can imagine myself being kind, without aspiring to divinity
Let’s call kindness manageable. It goes a long way when you’ve lost your grip and/or your ground. The poet knows.
Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
Naomi Shihab Nye was born in 1952 in St. Louis, Missouri to a Palestinian father and an American mother. She is an award-winning poet, songwriter and novelist. A visit to her paternal grandmother on the West Bank was life-changing for her. She lived there for a year and says that being part of both a minority and a majority in cultures influenced her political views and the message of her poetry. Naomi calls herself a “wandering poet”.
Nye's poem “Kindness” came to my attention through a friend who told me that an unknown woman in an elevator on 9/11 gave him the poem, saying, “Here, you will need this today.” The woman was right. When my friend, professor of pastoral theology at Boston College, teaches on 9/11 he always begins his classes with this poem.
May I suggest that we begin each day with this poem—not just for Lent but into Holy Week, all through Eastertide and beyond. God’s kindness is toward the world. We need it now. Oh, we need it now.