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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Saving Starfish

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 23, 2000

One writer puts it this way: "Kindness is contagious and warms the grateful heart."

A writer named Dale E. Friesen tells the story of "The Paperboy Who Delivered Kindness":

"This is a true story about kindness," Friesen writes, "and of something that a young paperboy did for me years ago. At that time I had recently been laid off from a job at a hotel.
 
"After my finances had soon run out, I was... forced to live off the pop bottle money that I collected... When I had worked at the hotel, the maids, rather than throwing away the bottles they found, gave them to me when I asked for them. I didn't really need them at the time, but waste not, want not, right? Well, I took them home and stashed them away. At this time. they were coming in very handy (about $40 worth), and so I had them by the back porch to be handy when I went to get groceries every so often.
 
"Now, the paperboy always came from the back, and around the house to the front, to deliver the paper to one [of the people in the other apartments]. On one of these days, he knocked on my door, and when I answered it, he asked me what I was doing with all the pop bottles on the side of the house, and if he could have them (he was about 11 years old, and this would have been a lot of money to him). I politely replied that I needed them to buy groceries, as I had lost my job, and they were the only money I had, and then I half joked with him that I was about to ask him if I could have some of his. 'Oh,' he said, and skipped off. Somehow, I felt as though I still should have given him on or two.
 
"The next day, there was a knock on the door again, and when I answered it, there was the paperboy, and before I realized it, he thrust two huge pop bottles into my hands and said... 'These are for your groceries.'... And so with great humility, and no wanting to spoil his kindness and generosity, I humbly took them.
 
"I've thought of this incident many times over the years," Friesen concludes, "...and have always wondered how on earth a young boy could give up [what was to him] that much money to an older guy like myself, and what was he thinking that prompted such an act of kindness! It's absolutely mind-boggling when you think about it..."

We are reminded at times to "Practice Random Acts of Kindness". This idea all began with a line scrawled on a paper placemat by a woman named Anne Herbert, as she sat in a restaurant in Sausalito, California in the early 1980s:

Herbert had been turning a phrase-- a few words to sum up her view of life-- over and over in her mind for several days. Finally, as she sat in the restaurant, she scrawled on the placemat in front of her the words: "Practice Random Kindness and Acts of Senseless Beauty."

"That's so wonderful!" the man sitting next to her exclaimed. And he copied it down carefully on his own placemat, and tucked it away in his pocket. Herbert explained her idea further to the man: "Here's the idea," she said. "Anything you think there should be more of, do it randomly... Kindness can build on itself as much as violence can."

In 1982, Herbert, a Berkeley writer and peace activist, published the phrase in the CoEvolution Quarterly (now the Whole Earth Review). There it sat for about nine years, attracting little attention, apparently, until in 1991, Adair Lara, a columnist for the San Francisco Quarterly, came across it, tracked down Herbert, and wrote an article about her. The article was picked up nationally by the Reader's Digest (a radical publication if there ever was one!), and reprinted. That got noticed by the editors of Conrai Press, a small publishing house in Berkeley.

Inspired by the phrase and the people involved in the movement, the editors at Conrai held a reception one evening, and invited their guests to record and share their stories of "Random Acts of Kindness". These stories were combined with others collected from around the country, and in February 1993 was published as a book, title (aptly enough) Random Acts of Kindness. In the six years since, the book has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and the phrase has entered the popular vocabulary of our time.

It's nice to know that kindness can sell. It's even nicer to know that it can transform our hearts. And maybe, even, change the world.

Berkeley, the home of the 1960s "counter culture", has become to home of the 1990s "kindness culture". And maybe-- maybe-- at this point in the life of our world-- the two really aren't that different.

Perhaps what this world needs today, more than anything, is kindness.. and gentleness... not more loud and strident voices-- not more zealots and ideologues... but more gentle hearts... and more soft and warm hands willing to reach out and touch one another... There is a place in human history for great political movements (and I struggle often with the question "Where is our movement, in these early days of this new century?") .

But maybe-- maybe-- that question is an outmoded and backward way of looking at things. Perhaps it reflects the reasoning of an age that has already died. We wait around for someone to build us a cart in which we can ride, when we have before us a perfectly horse that we can jump onto, and ride away to do so much good... We think we have to save all the starfish on the beach for our lives to be worthwhile.

In the face of this monolithic, monopolistic, greedy, selfish culture-- a culture that insists constantly that we will never be whole unless we have more and more and more... that things must grow larger and larger and larger... that wealth, power, influence have to concentrated into fewer and fewer hands... maybe-- maybe-- the most counter-cultural thing we can do is to say "Enough!".

To remember that, more often than not, small is better; closer is deeper; to shop at small stores; drive small cars; eat little meals; to do our little jobs with full engagement of heart and mind and soul; to touch those closest to us; love every person we meet to the full degree we can; to remake the world from the inside out-- by changing our hearts first and doing what we can to be kind to one another.

In his book Hymns to An Unknown God, Sam Keane writes:

"Creating a political community based on kindness may seem like an impossibility... {But] We are discovering lately in American society that we can't build a good society on the principles of self-interest and entitlement alone. Without generosity there can be no community. Without the kindness of strangers, a society is turned into an armed camp... The atmosphere of compassion that transforms a mass of alienated individuals into a caring community is created by countless acts of kindness and charitable foresight."

Make no mistake about it-- compassion and caring and kindness are counter-cultural acts in this culture of ours. But they are also values carved so very, very deeply in our innermost souls, that they emerge-- eventually-- emerge and transform an instant in history into that blessed heaven when soul touches soul. (Science shows that, as young as 18-weeks, infants will respond instinctively and compassionately to the perceived pain of those around them.)

But I'm enough of a realist to know that sometimes history is cruel-- and social forces fight back-- and society and culture and various powers that be can crush compassion, and beat it down, and the light seems to go out.

But the fire smolders, but is not extinguished... And the forces of love lie in wait-- to emerge again, breaking through this hard, crusted-over land. As long as we breathe, we hope-- for we know there is within us this Spirit of Life which is always, ultimately, stronger than any forces that can be mounted against it. And in the end, we see this Spirit most clearly in the caring and kindness we extend to those around us...

Kindness touches the heart and inspires gratitude. Gratitude comes from the Latin word "gratus", which means "grace". Amazing grace! God's grace. Not as a gift from some far-off, detached, fear-inspiring Father who art in heaven... but as the most precious gifts we give to one another... the kindness, the help, the love we give one another...

Life is hard sometimes (especially in January, we know, when the winds blow and the temperature all day barely rises above zero). Life is busy. Often relentlessly busy; out-of-control busy for so many of us (that's next week's sermon).

But it amazes me to think, sometimes, of how many opportunities we have to be kind to one another-- how much good we can do in the lives of those around us-- even in the lives of those we don't even know.

They say it takes half as many muscles to smile as to frown. It probably takes half as much energy (and half as much time!) to be kind as to be cruel. Indeed, it probably doesn't take any more energy to be kind than to be apathetic (let alone cruel). Because I really don't think that most people are cruel to one another. We're just sort of... absent, unengaged.

We go through life sometimes heads-bent, all huddled up against the cold-- even when it's July and temperature outside is in the 90s! Sometimes, we seem to live as though even in the midst of summer, there is within us an interminable winter, to turn Camus' words on their head. (At least, I know that I live life that way sometimes-- whether this is all true or not for you, you can ponder in your own hearts.)

But why do we close in on ourselves so often, and stop the currents of kindness from flowing?

Why do we insist that it's not enough to save just that one starfish... or two... or three... or four... or five... or six... or seven... That we have to save the whole beach, or ours lives won't really matter?

Maybe we're frightened by the thought of letting people know who we really are, because we haven't made peace with who we really are yet... So we close in, and hide, and build a fortress around ourselves, lest we be discovered...

Or maybe we insist on looking at life only through the glasses we've borrowed from society... We see things only as we're "supposed" to see them... We interact only with those we know, only those we like, only those like us... We think that people outside of our little boxes have nothing to offer us-- so, we offer them nothing, as well... Why is that damn paperboy ringing that bell again? Friesen might have thought at first... I told him I couldn't give him any bottles... Why doesn't he just go away? What could he possibly offer me? What could I possibly have in common with someone so much younger than I am... or so much older... or of a different color... or of a different lifestyle... or of a different religion? So we close into our little group. And pretty soon, life can grow dull and boring and pretty drear, because we've become too small in our love, and too selective in our compassion...

Or maybe we're afraid that we won't be able to do anything for someone else. We can't take away their pain. We can't solve their problems. We can't make it all better for them. Throwing starfish back into the water is relatively easy, after all, once you get over the sliminess of the whole situation. What do we do in real human situations, real tragedies, where it seems there's nothing anybody can do? So often, I think, we do nothing. We retreat away from engagement, and back into ourselves. We can't solve the problem, so we do nothing.

We forget that sometimes-- oftentimes-- just being there is enough.

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells this story:

One day, a young son came home and said to his father, "Dad, I'm really proud that I was able to help my friend Billy today.
 
"Tell me about it," the father asked. "How did you help Billy?"
 
His son replied, "Well, Billy was riding down the street and took a bad fall, and his bicycle was all twisted out of shape. He couldn't repair it, so he sat down on the sidewalk and he cried."
 
The father said, "I don't understand. You don't know how to repair bicycles. How did you help Billy?"
 
The reply was, "Well, I sat down and cried with him."
 
"In the end, only kindness matters."

In Kurt Vonnegut's novel God Bless You, Mrs. Rosewater, one of the characters is asked by a friend to baptize her newborn twins. He pleads with her that he has no influence in heaven, that he's not a religious person, really. But she wants him to do it anyway.

He shares his dilemma with another friend, who asks him "What will you do? What will you say?"

"Oh, I don't know," he answers. "I guess I'll go over to her house, throw some water on the babies, and say, 'Hello, babies, welcome to earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outset, babies, you've got about 100 years here. There's only one rule I know of, babies-- Damnit, you've got to be kind. There's only one rule: you've got to be kind."

We pile so many complications on things-- on religion, on life. And there are deep questions that nag at us, and complicated issues we face.

But maybe-- maybe-- when we boil it down, it's a whole lot simpler than we realize. Maybe our religion boils down to three simple things, as one of my colleagues has suggested:

Love your neighbor.
Wonder at the mystery of all that is.
Be thankful for the gift of life.

And at the heart of all of these-- at the heart of love, wonder, gratitude-- is compassion. There are weaker rocks, certainly, upon which to build a life than kindness. As Wordsworth wrote:

That best portion of a good man's life,--
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.

"Sometime in your life," writes Daniel Berrigan, "sometime in your life, hope that you may see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope, pray, that you might have baked it, or bought it, or even needed it for yourself. For that look on your face, from your hands meeting across a piece of bread, you might be willing to lose a lot, or suffer a lot, or die a little even."

It is through blessing others in our lives that we find ourselves most blessed.

Another writer has put it this way:

"We can resolve [all of us] to be kinder, gentler beings. All day, every day. We can treat those closest to us with the same respect and politeness that we reserve for friends and colleagues. We can refuse to litter the life of others with negative energy. If we do this, we will be doing our part to create a world in which kindness is never a random act, but rather a way of life."

As Gandhi said: "Be the change you want to see in the world."

We must do what we can to help one another where we can. For there lies all the meaning and purpose these lives of ours might ever have.

Our hands are small. But they are the only hands God has; the only hands this world of ours has.

May these hands reach out, and touch, and bless the world-- and bless each person we are blessed to know.


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