My young son Jamie was excited about eating at a special diner and ordered his meal with exuberance. As the other customers smiled at his enthusiasm, I suddenly realized I'd forgotten to get cash on the way there.
Checking my purse, I saw that my own dinner would need to be a few of his French fries. My son offered his own coins, and I resolved to get something more to eat at home.
When it came time to pay, our server told us that someone at the counter had paid for our dinner and left. We never found out who had done it. The phrase "Practice random acts of kindness" was popular at the time - and very fitting. But as I thought about it, it didn't feel accurate to describe the happiness we felt as the effect of a random impulse or a fad.
There's a well-loved passage in the Bible: "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning" (James 1:17). That was my answer. Everything good comes from God, and the flow is never chancy. In fact, God is good itself, and our very existence is in expressing that goodness. Giving and receiving good is native to each of us as God's own expression.
Years ago, before the "random kindness" idea became widely celebrated, I paid for the car behind mine at a highway tollbooth. At the time, it felt like an impulsive act, albeit a good one. But as I thought about it now, understanding that God is the one good and the one power, put kind acts squarely under God's guidance.
It helps me to think of myself and others as the outcome of good, rather than the cause of it. Generosity, compassion, tenderness, have their genesis in God, and their visibility through us.
Reorienting myself about the source of kindness has helped take away feelings of obligation or guilt. It reminds me to drop a feeling of pressure to give or regret over lost opportunities, and to look to God for direction in expressing His kindness. I like to think of my relations with others as God's business. Divine Love is the source of tender care for everyone, and because God's love is infinite, it shines through all of us without our having to make it happen.
Does the individual have any responsibility then? Yes, to be willing - even to long - to see and express God's love is a powerful prayer. It can touch corners of thought and experience that seem untouched by goodness. People might respond in unforeseen ways. Kindness wouldn't be surprising or optional, but the norm.
Understanding God as the universal source of kindness in no way diminishes the individual who expresses it. The gesture of our unknown friend at the diner underscored the bond we shared as expressions of the same God. The Discoverer of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote, "Goodness never fails to receive its reward, for goodness makes life a blessing. As an active portion of one stupendous whole, goodness identifies man with universal good" ("The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany," pg. 165).
I feel that the kindness we were shown that night was unquestionably an outcome of this universal good. My husband was in another city at the time, and I called him and told him what had happened. He then told me something that had happened to him that might sound like a minor incident, but was a significant coincidence to us.
All week he had been praying about how to help a homeless man he passed every morning. That very day, he'd felt impelled to buy him a hot breakfast. The man was touched by the kindness.
Hardly a permanent answer to that man's needs, but it was a promise to me that kindness is the natural and certain response to God's own goodness at work in everyone. Prayer makes us more aware of this goodness. To my husband and me, it seemed as if the boundaries of time, space, or any other limitation fell away that day. Isaiah describes the constancy of kindness this way: "For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee" (Isa. 54:10).
We're more certain now that kindness is inevitable, dependable, and never random.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor