Blog | Lindsey Smallwood

How to be Kind in a Raging World

Lindsey SmallwoodComment

I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be kind.

As we get deeper and deeper into this intense political season where passions run high and tempers are quick to flare, I’ve heard a number of people imploring us all to be kind. It seems like good advice on its surface. I strongly believe my social media feed would benefit from more kindness and less outrage.

But what does it mean to be kind in a raging world?

As I attempted to think of a moment my own life to illustrate kindness, I was overwhelmed with so many examples I wasn’t even sure how to pick the best one.

I could tell you about the time my mother-in-law spent two days meticulously cleaning our house after the moving truck came to Berkeley. Using a toothbrush to make things sparkle I didn’t even know were capable of sparkling.

I could tell you about how the friend who brought our family a meal every week for a few months so I could catch my breath in a season of getting adjusted to a new place and managing a small baby and a toddler.

I could tell you about the kindness of the man on the plane a few weeks ago, who moved to a middle seat so that my one-year-old could have his own seat instead of being my lap infant (which is a joke anyway because, at eight months pregnant, I have very little lap and at nearly 22-months-old, he’s hardly an infant).

Even as I started to think of this list, I realized all of us have our own moments and stories where we’ve experienced kindness in important ways. In fact, it might be worth it to think about those for a moment. Really. Close your eyes right there at your phone or your computer and let yourself enjoy it, remembering moments, people and places where you were well cared for, where people were friendly, generous, considerate to you.

I want you to remember what it feels like to receive kindness.

Isn’t it fun to remember?

Isn’t it fun to remember?

Doesn’t it make you smile, fill you up, want to tell someone your good story? Remembering how it feels to receive kindness inspires me to want to practice more of it in my life.

And that’s what kindness is, it’s a practice. Kindness is a quality of the heart, it’s something we need to be. But in addition to being – kindness is something we do.  Kindness invites us to action.

At it's root, kindness means to be useful. To see a need and meet it. To look for ways to be helpful.

We can do that. As Christians we can be kind because we’ve all received such kindness from God, whose kindness moved Him to give us Jesus, that we might know God and enjoy Him forever. Jesus shows one piece of kindness.

But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men.” Luke 6:35

We’re not kind to get kindness, we’re kind because the Holy Spirit is shaping us into people who are more like Jesus. Jesus showed us kindness even when we could have cared less, even when we treated Him with contempt. His kindness is what leads us to repentance, his practical love helps us understand a God who created us to be kind to each other.

In a world where you can be anything, be kind. Look for the places in your everyday life where you can be useful. It could be as small as holding the door and as big as giving away something that really matters to you. It’s the Jesus way, and it might just change this loud and fearful world, one kind act at a time.

 

This post originally appeared at Middle Places.

How to Say the Kindest "No"

Lindsey SmallwoodComment

True confession: I really like to say yes.

When someone asks me for something, I always want to give them what they want. Saying “yes” makes me feel important and needed. My friend Stephanie calls it “Oprahing”:

You get a yes. And you get a yes. And you get a yes. Yeses for everyone!

All this Oprahing in my own life feels great for awhile. When everyone delights in my willingness to bring muffins and watch their kids and lead the adult Sunday School class. But eventually, when my yeses get out of control, I’m left exhausted, resentful and overwhelmed.

I’ve learned to ask myself a few simple questions to help me decide what to say yes – and no – to. These questions help me find the middle ground between indiscriminate yeses for everyone and hiding when my phone rings because someone might want something.

FIRST OFF, WHAT ABOUT THIS MAKES ME WANT TO SAY YES?

Writing an article I believe in for the community newsletter will be invigorating and worth my (very limited) free time. Writing something to help out an editor-friend on a deadline may or may not be possible given the constraints of my current season of work and motherhood.

Bottom line: if the reason I want to say yes to something is rooted in guilt, fear or a sense of obligation, I know I probably need to say no instead.

NEXT, WHAT WOULD THIS COST ME?

A wise mentor once told me every yes you give to one thing is a no to something else. When I volunteer to lead a small group for our mom’s group, I’m not only committing to the time the small group meets, but the preparation, follow-up and fatigue accompanying that kind of commitment.

Sometimes, that’s worth a yes. Particularly when it’s an activity making me come alive and allowing me to use my gifts and talents in a meaningful way. But some requests just cost too much time, money and emotional space for this season of family life. Those need a no.

FINALLY, IS THERE ANYTHING ABOUT THIS I CAN SAY YES TO?

When I know I need to say no to something someone asked of me, I try to think through whether there’s anything I can offer instead. Perhaps I know someone else to approach with their need. Maybe I can’t bring snacks every week but would be willing to do it once a month. Sometimes there isn’t anything to offer, it’s just no. That’s OK too.

Still, once I decide to say no, even when I know it’s the right decision, it can feel, well, mean. It’s hard for me to risk other’s disappointment at my decision not to participate in their project or help with their event. I never want people to think I’m blowing them off or that I don’t value their efforts.

HOW TO SAY THE KINDEST NO

I want my “no”s to be bathed in kindness, communicating the worth of the person whose asked me for something. Here’s my game plan for delivering the kindest no.

1. Sincerely thank them for asking.

Here’s where I get to acknowledge the good in what they’re doing and my pleasure at being invited into it. I let them know how much I value their trust in me and willingness to include me in their project. Whether it’s as grand as speaking at a weekend retreat or as (seemingly) small as watching my neighbor’s houseplants.

2. Say no.

Be clear! Sometimes in our efforts to be kind, we sacrifice directness. The kindest thing you can do if unwilling or unable to commit to something that’s been asked of you is to clearly say no.

3. If you do have a smaller yes, offer it.

Sometimes a no is where the conversation ends. But in other cases, though you might need to say no to what was asked, you can say yes to something else. Recently, I got asked to teach a class at my church, I almost said no because the project sounded too big. But, after thinking about it, I said yes, as long as I could recruit a strong leader to co-teach with me.

4. Let the other person feel their feelings.

You never know how people will respond. In my experience, usually others are gracious and understand when I can’t give them what they’re asking for. But occasionally people become upset or try to insist that I do what they’re requesting. Maintaining my boundaries while offering empathy for their disappointment allows me to be kind while protecting my heart and my schedule.

No is a necessary word, but I’m learning it can be offered with kindness.

This post originally appeared at Middle Places. 

I Found Space to Ask Big Questions

Lindsey SmallwoodComment

One of the interesting things about becoming an adult is that I find myself asking fewer questions about the meaning of life. When I was a child, I lobbed a constant barrage of “whys” at my parents from the backseat, the dinner table, or our nightly check-ins before bed.

Why is the sky blue?

Why can’t I play with fire?

Why do I have to grow up?

As a teenager, the questions got bigger and I realized I wasn’t the only one asking them. At school, in the back row of youth group, from our beds at summer camp, my friends and I began to exchange “whys”, explaining what we knew with the kind of enthusiasm that comes from being 16 and sure of yourself yet utterly confused at the same time.

Why does God allow suffering?

Why should we trust the Bible?

Why does Jesus care who I sleep with?

In college and into my 20s, there were long conversations at coffee shops and over beers, debating worldviews and wrestling through the complexities of a world that seemed more wonderful and more terrible the closer I came to standing on my own inside of it. I read books and went to church groups, seminars, religious meetings, expanding my search for meaning.

Why do Christians think there’s only one path to God?

Why would a good God allow us to not choose him?

Why do I exist?

Eventually, after many years of searching and thinking and asking questions everywhere I went, I made a decision as an adult to become a Christian, to trust that Jesus is the best revelation of who God is and that the Bible is the primary way we can understand God and human experience. In the process of making that decision, I settled on working answers to many of my big questions about life.

And then I moved on.

I got a job, then another job, a graduate degree. I moved to a new city, joined a church, got married, had kids. In other words, life happened—and it keeps happening. I continue practicing my faith, growing in my understanding of God as I study Scripture or talk to him in prayer. But most of my theological time these days is not spent trying to answer big “why” questions. Instead I find myself turning back to my faith to help me make sense of important life decisions or to find wisdom for dealing with hard relationships.

Here’s the thing though, those questions are still there—not with the aching urgency of adolescence, when it felt like I needed to solve the world’s problems before I could sleep at night. The questions don’t loom large like they did in young adulthood, as if finding the right answers would open certain doors to the future. But they’re there. It’s just that the rush to answer them, the curiosity with which I approached the universe seems to have waned over time.

This is why I love what happened to me when I took the time to re-read Ecclesiastes last year. It’s a fairly short book, tucked in the middle of the Old Testament, and it’s unlike anything else in the Bible. The author, thought by many to be Solomon but never actually named in the book, opens with a pretty bleak thesis—maybe you’ve heard it?

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”

(Ecclesiastes 1:2 NIV)

Not exactly what you might expect to find in a Holy Book meant to give instructions on matters of faith and God.

But the Bible is more than an instruction book for living; it’s a collection of stories meant to ultimately point us to the greatest story of all, the life and death of Jesus. As one of those stories, Ecclesiastes is timeless, as fresh today as it must have been to the ancient ears that heard it first. It’s the musings of a man near the end of his life. He’s enjoyed great wealth, taken many lovers, known success in work and yet, as we see in his opening above, all of it taken together doesn’t seem to amount to much.

The book continues with observations on everything from the problem of human suffering and the frustration of perpetual injustice to why relationships matter and how to find joy in hard circumstances. As the author unspooled his ideas through sermons and proverbs, I found myself nodding along, realizing that as much as I’m thankful for the spiritual encouragement that comes from Paul’s letters and Jesus’ teachings, this book offers something else I need.

In Ecclesiastes there is a place to doubt, to again examine my position in the universe. It’s a spot to face the harsh realities of life on earth and not have my reactions to them minimized. I’m so used to answering my own questions with predictable answers from Scripture. Feeling sad? Rejoice in the Lord always! Struggling to make sense of your situation? Cast your cares on God.

Those answers are true and good. But sometimes, before we get there, we need a friend to sit with us, to acknowledge that life is unfair and messy and confusing, even painful. Ecclesiastes is that friend. Telling the truth about life under the sun. Allowing us space to tell the truth too.

It’s not all bleak observations and declarations of meaninglessness. Like every good story, there’s hope there too. Ecclesiastes 9:4 reminds us that as long as we’re among the living, we have hope and, as the book goes on, the author reminds us what that hope looks like. It’s a hope that learns to enjoy life in a harsh world, to fear God when he resists being understood.

These are the lessons of Ecclesiastes, a book worth a second look for anyone who’s brave enough to ask life’s big questions and willing to face the realities, good and bad, of human existence.

The post originally appeared at The Redbud Post

When Learning Looks Like Failing

Best of...Lindsey SmallwoodComment

Over at Middle Places, we're thinking about learning this month. Turns out, my own learning hasn't been pretty lately...

Learning looks a lot like failing right now.

Like when I tried to teach a new song to kids at our church's VBS program last month. I hadn't practiced the motions before I started and ended up tripping myself and tumbling dramatically to the carpet. Much to the delight of the assembled four-year-olds watching my slow motion dance-tastrophe. 

Or the long strange silence reverberating through the sanctuary on a Sunday in June. The room should have been filled with the sound of the congregation reciting the Apostle's Creed. Except I assisted in worship and forgot what came next. Just totally forgot, even though I held the program in my hand. The silence might have gone on forever had the choir leader not stood up from his seat in the loft and prompted me that now would be a good time to affirm our faith together. In my flustered state, I called for the offering instead.

Nothing like standing up in front of 500 people and getting it all wrong.

Sometimes the failing looks less embarrassing and more endearing. Like this picture I snapped of my two-year old last month. Those sweet little shoes are on the wrong feet, but they’re on at all because he did it himself. He’s learning, figuring out a new skill one piece at time.

That’s the thing about learning anything that matters. Most of time making mistakes is part of the process. Experimenting and trying and failing and trying again.

I didn’t know this when I was younger. A lot of things came easily to me, especially academics. In fact, school was so easy for so long that when I began to struggle with upper level math and science courses in high school, I just assumed that those were beyond my abilities, that I wasn’t a science person. The truth is I hadn’t yet learned to persevere when things didn’t come easy to me.

But God in his great grace has given me a lot of opportunities to learn to persevere since then, challenging jobs, a long-term relationship and especially parenting  have all been spaces of learning how to fail — and try again. In all of these contexts and more, I’ve noticed the best and most important things in my life require carrying on even when it’s hard, even after you fail.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he reminds them of the calling to grow in our understanding and bear with each other. He writes:

Let us not become weary in doing good,

for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

Galatians 6:9

 

Don’t give up! Keep on doing the right thing even when you’re weary, even when yesterday you made a spectacular mess of things. When we’re building toward what really matters, we keep our eyes on the final result, the harvest God has planned, not the ways we get tripped up on the way there.

Like the sweet VBS kids who managed to learn God’s truth through music despite my terrible dance moves. Or my son, who’s continuing to build skills allowing him to fulfill God’s purposes in his life someday.

And me. I’m signed up to assist in worship again next week. You better believe that I’ll be practicing in front of the mirror in hopes of avoiding another thundering silence. But ultimately I know I’m learning to lead, that the opportunity to work on a church staff and serve our congregation is a way that God’s growing me in this season.

Learning sometimes looks like failing. But as we persevere, even when we’d rather sit in the back row and not risk embarrassment, we move closer to the good things God called us to do.

This post originally appeared at Middle Places.