My day began in New Delhi, India, around 7.00. I was due at a school to address their morning assembly. I’d skipped breakfast because I’d been told my colleague and I would have food after the assembly. Delhi traffic was as crazy as ever, but we arrived safely, the assembly went well, and a small group of us gathered in the headteacher’s office afterwards. Breakfast was served – hamburgers. So began the day of seven cooked meals.

It was one of those days when visit followed visit in rapid succession. And at every project and in every home, we were fed. Perhaps a few were motivated to please foreign guests who might provide funding for their organisation. But mostly the hospitality reflected a culture of kindness: guests should be honoured, and honoured guests are served food.

Most of our meals that day were traditional for north India. I preferred that. I had no wish to be given European-style meals when in India. Every stop was another breakfast or a lunch or, as the day wore on, a dinner. These were not snacks. They were substantial meals.

Can you have too much of a good thing? Yes, you can. By mid afternoon I was moving from feeling full to feeling ill. My queasiness wasn’t helped by city traffic. We veered this way, that way, stopped and then roared ahead. Thankfully, each time we arrived at a new destination, I could walk around. Soon I’d be fine again.

After six stops – now at nearly 8.00 in the evening – we paid our final call to thank friends who’d helped organize our day’s visits. We were invited into their home, and politeness required we accept. The inevitable happened. Their politeness meant they insisted on giving us a meal. And our politeness meant we couldn’t refuse. Our seventh cooked meal in one day.

Other days rivalled that one, but happily none ever beat it. I loved the food, and loved the people even more. But if seven meals a day happened every day I’d have been charged for excess baggage for the flight home.

I was shown great kindness by people in many poor countries, and it’s left the enduring thought that they had so little but gave so much. Sometimes we were able, quietly, to pass on a ‘gift’ in thanks, because otherwise their generosity to us would have meant their family didn’t eat for several days. But their kindness was given without knowing there’d be any reimbursement; they simply used the little they had to bless us.

I saw that principle – ‘those who have little give much’ – during my years as a pastor in the UK. Senior citizens, often with little money, were the first to give when the congregation were asked to help the poor at home or abroad. Relative to their means, they were super generous. They reminded me of the poor widow Jesus saw putting a couple of coins into the temple offering. He said she’d given more than any of the rich people because the rich had plenty left whereas she’d given everything she had.[1]

Kindness matters, and there are good principles underpinning it, including these.

As people have done for us, so we should do for others

In America, I finished my supermarket shopping, waited in the checkout queue, the operator scanned my purchases, and I got ready to pay. Then I was told, ‘Your bill has already been paid’. I looked puzzled, and said I didn’t understand. She explained, ‘The person two places in front of you has already paid for the next three customers after him’. I walked away, humbled and grateful.

I’d just experienced an instance of ‘pay it forward’. Pay it forward has a long tradition which has been popularised in books and film.[2] The core idea is that when someone has been good to you, there’s no need to repay them but you should pass on an equivalent kindness to someone else.

How would the world be if everyone followed that principle? We’ve all been helped by others, probably many times. What if the benefit they gave us was ‘paid back’ with equivalent kindness to others who need it?

Kindness means you meet some strange but wonderful people

The culture of the ancient Middle East included hospitality to passing strangers, welcoming them into your home for a meal, and perhaps providing a bed for the night. That custom is the background to a strange Bible verse:

‘Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.’ (Hebrews 13:2)

Many believe the reference to ‘angels’ is meant literally, that unknown guests may actually be angelic creatures. Others think the Greek word used here – angelos (ἄγγελος) – only has the general meaning of ‘one sent’ or ‘messenger’. If that second view is correct, the guest must still be a VIP++. There’s no reason to call visitors angels unless they are very special messengers, likely messengers sent by God.

I’m not aware that we’ve ever given hospitality to angels, but some who came our way were certainly special. During their stay we were helped, encouraged, motivated and even sometimes guided regarding what we were meant to do. Without these guests, our lives would not have been complete. Kindness introduces you to the best and most important of people.

We don’t show kindness for our own sake.

How could kindness ever be for our own benefit? Surely kindness is always about helping others? It is about helping others, but there can still be the issue of motivation.

In the entrance halls of many public buildings in America – including churches – I’d see a wall of plaques containing the names of those whose gifts had built or furnished that building. The names of the biggest givers were usually in the largest type, with progressively smaller font sizes for lesser donor categories. Outside there might be a pathway with donor names inscribed on the stones. Or a room would be named after a donor. Of course, a very generous donor might have their name emblazoned right across the whole building. Publicising donors’ names isn’t unique to America; I just saw more of it there.

Why would anyone want their name on a building? Or on a plaque promoting how much they’d given? Some motivations will be good. But others perhaps less so. I know from fundraisers that the offer of a donor’s name on a building can be a ‘hook’ to secure a very large gift. So, would that donor be motivated by generosity? Or motivated to be thought generous? Only they could know the answer.

Jesus gave the perfect antidote to seeking glory by your giving – don’t reveal your generosity to anyone.

‘But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’ (Matthew 6:3-4)[3]

Is that an impossible standard? That we should keep our generosity secret? It’s not impossible.

In one church where I was pastor, several times a couple presented me with a box of groceries and other necessities to give to families they saw going through hard times. I was to pass on the gift, but say only that it came from friends who cared. Those packages fed families with food and also warmed their hearts. Someone had seen and someone had cared. But they never knew who the ‘someone’ was.

Kindness is not about what we get; it’s about what we give.

Our goal must be to provide the kindest, not to provide the finest.

I’ve visited and preached from the northern islands of Scotland to the south coast of England and across to the west coast of Wales. And also in many other countries of the world. Often I’ve eaten and stayed overnight in people’s homes. Some of those houses were lavish; others were very humble. If I was to draw up a list of  the top 20 homes I’m grateful to have visited, none would be on that list because of how grand they were. The best were those with gracious, helpful, thoughtful people who made it clear I was welcome and ensured I was comfortable. I felt cared for, and didn’t mind at all whether their furniture came from high-end stores or charity shops. It was simply a joy to be looked after by good, kind people.

Kindness counts. It’s a wonderful privilege to be able to bless people with acts and attitudes of kindness. It may be life-changing for them. And it’s wonderful when we’re on the receiving end of kindness, though it may mean eating seven cooked meals in the same day.

[1] As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. ‘Truly I tell you,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.’  (Luke 21:1-4)

[2] Nicely summarized by Wikipedia:

[3] Almost all of Matthew chapter 6 is teaching of Jesus about not making a ‘show’ of our spiritual or humanitarian actions. God sees it all, and that’s enough.

Some things can’t be taught

I was listening to a podcast during which the hosts were responding to a listener’s complaint that his doctor lacked compassion. Seems the podcasters also knew compassion-deficient medics. The podcast conversation was about general practitioners (primary care physicians), people we’d expect to communicate care and concern. But apparently these doctors didn’t. And one of the podcasters said she was surprised about that, because, after all, ‘we can teach compassion’.

Really? We can teach the importance of compassion, and perhaps ways in which a doctor can show compassion appropriately. But can we make someone compassionate? Could any content of a lecture result in the uncaring people who walked in, later walking out as caring people? Compassion isn’t an idea or a piece of knowledge. It’s a heart-felt desire to love, support, encourage, sympathise. That’s how it is, not just for doctors but for anyone.

It got me thinking about what else can’t be taught. It wasn’t difficult to come up with a long list. I’ve set down only a few here.

Wisdom  Someone might have a fistful of university degrees, but that’s no guarantee they’ll act wisely. The captain of the Titanic had all the necessary sea-faring qualifications, but on one fateful night lacked the wisdom to take his vessel slowly through iceberg-strewn water. The Titanic was travelling at virtually full speed, leaving only 30 seconds from the sighting of the iceberg to the moment of collision. The captain had knowledge, but on that night lacked wisdom.

Kindness  A couple of years ago I was walking in our local shopping centre, when a female voice with a slightly foreign accent said, ‘Excuse me, didn’t you work in the offices just up the road?’

‘Yes, I did…’ I said hesitantly, turning to see who’d asked the question. I couldn’t place her. I wondered if she’d mistaken me for someone else, but she was right that I used to work in those offices. ‘I’m sorry, I said. ‘I don’t recognise you.’

‘That’s all right, but I recognise you. I worked in the early evenings cleaning the offices, and you often asked me how I was. And listened while I told you. You were kind to me.’

Now I felt slightly guilty, because I still didn’t remember her. But I did speak with the cleaners who came in when others had gone. Their work was important, and they were important. So I enjoyed getting to know them. And, for at least that lady, it had mattered.

But there was not a single class during my theological degrees or business degree on kindness. No-one taught that. Kindness, thoughtfulness, caring and similar qualities should have been talked about, but I suspect they were never on the curriculum for two reasons: a) no-one thought they needed to be taught; b) no-one thought they could be taught.

Spirituality  Now surely that was taught in theological college? I remember lectures on different approaches to spirituality, one of which resulted in the challenge to meditate for as long as we could, with one hour as the minimum. (I did reasonably well for about 30 minutes, after which my mind kept meditating on why the clock wasn’t going round faster. Failed that challenge.) And there was an interesting study on the theme of prayer in Luke’s gospel.

So, we talked about spirituality, but lectures could never make anyone spiritual. Why not? Because true spirituality is practising the presence of God, living close to God, longing to know God and to serve God. It’s the desire for every part of your being to belong to God, and every area of your life dedicated to his purposes. That’ll result in prayer, Bible study, and maybe even meditation, but these are disciplines of spirituality, not spirituality itself.

Someone could sit in classes on spirituality for ten years, and not emerge any closer to God. Spirituality is a thing of the heart, of the mind, of the will, of someone’s desires and motivations and goals. It comes from inside, and can’t be taught from outside.

I could go on with my list. There are plenty more ‘unteachables’: empathy; friendliness; leadership; humility; patience; virtue. And even the supremely important love. If only love could be taught, wouldn’t the world be a much better place? But it can’t, because, like other attitudes and attributes, it lives in the heart and flows out through all that’s said and done.

So, is there no way to help anyone discover and own qualities like these in their lives? It’s not hopeless.

First, some things are caught, even when they can’t be taught.

I was about 20 when I met Paul. He was 25 and married. Paul and his wife were warm-hearted, outgoing, friendly Americans. They’d come to Edinburgh so Paul could study for his PhD in a subject I didn’t really understand, other than it was to do with the New Testament. I had just left full-time journalism, and was studying to pass exams that would get me admitted to university. The long-term goal was to become a minister. Paul and I became friends. Soon I picked up on his passion for study, and in particular for understanding the New Testament. He inspired me to get hold of a book called The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1961 by Stephen Neill. I travelled by bus every day, and read a few pages going out and a few more coming back. Sometimes I read it while walking down the street. Some of it didn’t make sense, but I was hooked. That book, which I still have today, plus Paul’s enthusiasm for New Testament study, gripped me. I passed my exams, and was enrolled at the University of Edinburgh. After a few years I had my Arts degree, then began studying theology. I could have specialised in several areas, but I had only one aim: to do an Honours degree in New Testament. That worked out well, and I was awarded a national scholarship to study for a PhD in (you guessed) New Testament studies.

Paul never told me that I should love studying the New Testament. But his passion became my passion. It communicated. It inspired. It motivated. And therefore changed the direction my studies would take and therefore my life would take. He didn’t teach any goal to me, but I certainly learned one from him.

Second, sometimes coaching gets you where teaching can’t.

I learned to swim when I was about five years old. Who taught me? It would seem my Dad did. But not really. My Dad couldn’t teach me because he couldn’t swim. He understood the basic strokes with arms and feet, but he was hopeless at coordinating his movements and sank like a brick. But Dad wanted me to learn, so he’d take me to the swimming pool and coach me as best he could. Lean forward, arms out front, then pull to the side and push forward again, all while pulling my feet up and out and back. He’d put his hand just under my body, not holding me up but reassuring me that he’d never let me drown. And one day I took off through the water with a near perfect breast stroke, unafraid, somehow having mastered one of those abilities you never lose.

Dad couldn’t teach me, but his coaching and encouragement got me there. I’ve seen that model followed in other areas. It happens in sport when a football team coach, perhaps never the best of players, inspires and guides others to greatness. Or someone helping people become capable public speakers. There’s no formula for that, for each person must find their own ‘voice’ and their own mode of delivery. The good coach doesn’t impose a method, but helps each person become the best they can be by showing them how to apply their own gifts to the task.

Third, each of us can learn by finding our own mentors.

I’ve never had anyone with a defined role in my life of a mentor. But there are people I’ve pummelled with questions, whose example I’ve copied, whose thinking has challenged mine. My pastor friend Peter is one of those. So was Tom, whose life and mine were on parallel tracks through our twenties. He was my confidante, my guide, my companion. Caroline had a passion for mission and a toughness of spirit which motivated and strengthened me in my early days heading up a missionary society. Karen helped me understand and appreciate academic study, and modelled how to motivate as well as educate young adults for Christian service. There are many more, certainly including my scholarly friend Paul I mentioned earlier. (When Alison and I lived in America, we tracked down Paul and his wife and met up with them in Texas. He’s still studying the New Testament and writing books about it. So, still inspiring and challenging me.)

Learning from how others live, from what they think, and from their experience may mean more than anything we’ll learn in a formal classroom. It may not be ‘teaching’ but it’s certainly ‘learning’.

I’ve been immensely privileged with opportunities to study. I would never minimise the benefit of that. But formal learning is not everything. Whether it’s for career, for marriage, for parenting, for being a good citizen, there are qualities and attributes that matter deeply but have to be learned in other ways. In the end those ‘soft skills’ may be the most significant for living a life that fulfils us and serves others.