STLT#84, How Far Can Reach a Smile?

I remember in the mid 2000s, Rev. Linda Hoddy, who was my home congregation’s minister, asked me to learn this as a solo. I remember at the time thinking how wonky the rhythms were and marveling that such an odd piece of music would be in the hymnal at all. Linda agreed that this was not something she could ask the congregation to sing, but it was the perfect piece for a service. And so I dived in. It took some practice before I could sing it gracefully, as its rhythm and word placement is unusual, and it was frustrating enough that my copy is covered with pencil marks where I worked on the phrasing and counting out the beats.

Relearning the piece a decade later, I felt that rush of frustration as I looked at the pencil-covered page (the advantage of owning your own hymnal). But in the relearning, I took it phrase by phrase as I had so carefully marked out, and I realized that this could be taught to a congregation if you tossed the book away and just handed them lyrics on a page.

And imagine if even the first verse alone became a regular response in the service? The lyrics are quite something, after all. What if we asked ourselves and our congregations to think about, for a moment, just what kindness and generosity can do?

How far can reach a smile, how high a helping hand can lift?
How far is far enough to give?

Is there a way to learn just how a kindness speaks or where it goes?
Should love be caught to hold?

For God pours out this love in all that lives, through God we see that
Life can never cease to give.

If we then think our small amount of help would not go far —
and so don’t give, would we still live?

Now the truth is, this is not a nice hymn. This isn’t calling for us to be nice. I reflected on nice v. kind in a service a few weeks ago – and I wish I could have used this hymn to emphasize my point:

It’s easier to be nice than to be kind. Niceness buys into the gospel of comfort, that says we don’t want to offend. Niceness is being quiet and complacent, niceness is not making waves and not making a stink and just letting people have their own version of truth even when they’re not factual. Niceness is demure and unobtrusive and doesn’t want to bother anybody. Niceness allows comfort to be more important than goodness, ease to be more valued than doing what’s right.

Niceness is not kindness. Kindness sees a need and offers to help. Kindness stands up for the person being bullied, and then makes sure they’re safe. Kindness disrupts lawlessness and incivility. Kindness goes out of its way. Kindness recycles, kindness holds the door, kindness builds a ramp, kindness explains, kindness knows its privilege and uses it to build justice. Kindness is not easy. Kindness is sometimes uncomfortable, because it requires us to not stay comfortable, to not stay nice and docile.

Kindness doesn’t sit still. And kindness acts in many big and small ways. Kindness calls elected representatives, and writes letters, and sometimes goes to protest marches, and makes sure everyone who wants to have a voice has one. Kindness donates much needed funds to groups in need and sometimes stands outside of Planned Parenthood and acts as a protective escort to women seeking medical treatment. Kindness puts on angels wings and shields a grieving family from a Westboro Baptist Church protest. Kindness sends water to Flint and camps with the Indian nations at Standing Rock. Kindness prays for the protection of sacred land and water, and asks forgiveness. Kindness mourns the loss of another black person killed by police and sometimes kindness works for racial justice because it knows that Black Lives Matter.

Kindness isn’t always easy. But kindness – the big acts and small – matters.

This hymn is a hymn of kindness. Do I wish it were easier to learn the tune? Sure. It would be great if this were easily accessible, like the Finlandia tune, for example. But maybe it’s good that it’s not.

This isn’t a nice hymn. But it is kind.

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