Monday, June 17, 2013
The Golden Rule Inside Out
We all know that the Golden Rule is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Right? Well it turns out that the inverse of that rule is used just as often in religious traditions. And it appears that this Golden Rule inside out, as I have called it, offers us a quite a bit more guidance on how we might treat each other with compassion.
At its core the golden rule is all about reciprocity, an understanding of simple fairness. And it is a shockingly universal rule. Before this week I knew that it’s one of the few ideas that occurs within nearly every religious tradition. From North to South and East to West, there is some version of it everywhere. What I hadn’t realized though, is that many of these traditions use a particular formula to highlight the golden rule. They say that this single rule is the culmination of all the ethical teachings of that tradition, that this rule is a foundation for all other within their faith. Think about it, when several different religious traditions claim one thing not just in common, but as the bedrock of their ethical life, that’s about the strongest endorsement any ethical idea can get.
Within the Judeo Christian tradition the Golden rule comes across in the positive sense. Perhaps that’s why we know it most commonly that way in the United States.. Though it comes up in a few different places, it is known as the great commandment, and the summation of Christian teaching. In Matthew, when asked "which is the great commandment in the law?", the Bible reports that Jesus answered, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind and Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself". How many times have we heard versions of that?
Another proponent of the Golden Rule was the Chinese philosopher and teacher, Confusions. Around the 500 BCE, he wrote “never impose on others what you would not choose yourself.” Both of these guidelines are useful, but I want to focus especially on the second one today. Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you. And don’t say to others what you don’t want said to you.
Sometimes we don’t like to admit it, but the things that others do and say affect us deeply. In our book discussion group last week we shared some of the small moments in life that have stuck to us in this regard. It was incredibly moving to hear people share the tiny moments of their lives that made a big difference, for ill or for good.
One woman shared about being a small child, and a teacher telling her she really shouldn’t bother with art projects in school because she didn’t have any artistic skill. For years afterward she avoided visual art, not because she felt particularly ashamed, she just knew that she has been told she wasn’t any good. So why bother. Until her senior year of high-school when she needed one more elective class. The only thing that fit in her schedule was an art class. She begrudgingly took it, and she love it. She’s no great artist, but she found that she actually enjoyed making art. And she also found that for years she had sold herself short because someone else insulted her work. Another woman in the class told a nearly identical story about singing in her childhood.
For me, the unkind moment that stuck also came in childhood. And it happened through my church. I remember the moment so clearly. We were on a choir trip to San Diego, and our youth minister said really in passing, that I was spoiled. Of course I know that having a good conversation about privilege and wealth could have really opened my eyes. It could have helped me understand my world much more clearly. But this was no compassionate conversation. It was an off the cuff short remark, judging me in one word. The offender in this story is now a Unitarian Universalist minister. I know he didn’t mean to be hurtful, and I can guarantee he doesn’t remember the conversation. But that doesn’t make it any less real. I remember it like it was yesterday.
Neither one of these offenses is horrible. But they were hurtful. The truth is we are sensitive to what others say. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words, they touch the soul.” Of course there is something to be said for self-confidence and not taking the negativity of others personally. But we are all human beings after all. At the end of the day we want to know that we will be included in the group. We want to know that there is a place for us in the pack. To varying degrees, we all need to belong. It’s part of who we are as social animals.
Living more compassionately in our world means recognizing that our actions and words affect other people. Even when we are not intending to, especially when we are not intending to, we can inflict a pretty high degree of pain on the people around us. Of course the alternative is also true. In our class we also shared the moments in life that someone’s small gesture had meant a great deal.
One person shared the story of trying out for the football team having never played the game before. He didn’t know what he was doing at all and he got pummeled. But one of his classmates spent a short time with him that afternoon, and explained a few basic concepts to protect himself. That brief explanation saved him in the tryouts. He got on the team, loved the sport and had a pretty successful go at football thereafter. Though they weren’t close friends, he still remembers the name of the guy that helped him out that one afternoon. It wasn’t such a big deal, but it made a world of difference.
Another person in the class recently lost her brother. And she got a card from another person in the class. It wasn’t a huge deal, but she said that receiving a hand-written note made her know that someone was thinking of her in her time of grief. That small gesture made all the difference in the world to her.
What I want you to hear in these stories, and what I want you to understand today is that we each have the power to impact other people’s lives. Whether we want the responsibility or not, the way we interact with other people will bring more suffering or more joy into the world. In her book “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life,” Karen Armstong spends a great deal of time and attention explaining that living compassionately is more than simply doing the right thing. Compassion is a mindfulness that gets cultivated with time and attention. Being aware of the impact we have on others means noticing how “carelessly we inflict pain; sighing impatiently over a minor inconvenience, grimacing when the clerk is slow at the check out line, or raising your eyebrows in derision at what you regard as a stupid remark.”
We all get tired and irritable. We all say things that we don’t intend. We all inadvertently hurt other people. But if we spend a little time and effort, we can do that less.
The golden rule is to do unto other what you would have done to you. And the rule inside out is, don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you. Now we are each a little different, we each have our own needs and wishes. So I want to pause for a moment. If we are going to abide by this rule after all, we have to know what it is that we want and don’t want in life.
What is it that you truly want from others? Make a mental list of it. Mine would include: being heard, getting a second chance, being invited to participate, a respect for my time and resources. But what is important to you? Think about it for a moment. What is it that you truly want from others?
And what are the ways you don’t want to be treated? What are the slights that have hurt you? For me they include belittling my life choices, mocking, questioning my ethics or intentions, and generally feeling judged by the people I am closest to. Make a list in your mind. How do you not want to be treated?
I’m willing to bet that the simple signs of respect and appreciation that we each want cost little time or money. And the things that really hurt you most avoidable, if we paid a little more attention to the way we treated one another.
Well now is your chance. As Karen Armstrong so beautiful says it, “The Golden Rule is not a notional doctrine that you agree with or disagree with. It is a method, and the only adequate test of any method is to put it to practice.” As Unitarian Universalists we know that the way we live our lives is more important than the theory behind the action.
Living Compassionately isn’t as simple as you might initially think. It requires an awareness that we are deeply interconnected. Our words and actions impact others in profound ways. Living compassionately requires reflecting sincerely on how we want to impact those around us, and having the self-awareness to pause before we act of speak. And THEN we act, we make our intentions manifest in the world around us.
Compassion is a way of being in the world that happens every day of our lives. It’s not simple, but it is a habit that, like any other can by built. Today we have talked about the first phases, about the power of our words and actions, about the impact that we want to have in the world. But now as we go back to our daily life, the time comes to live out that golden rule with one another.
As I said last week, no one becomes a saint overnight. We are called to ease into this exercise gradually. Armstrong suggests aiming to act once each day with the positive notion of the golden rule. Do something for someone that you would have wanted for yourself. When you are able to do that, then act once each day in the negative version, catching yourself before you make that funny but wounding remark. Remember, each time you succeed with the golden rule inside out, you have made a small victory over your ego. And it will get easier and easier.
At the end of your day, brushing your teeth or crawling into bed, reflect back and see if you were able to execute this most basic of ethical commandments. Did you do something for someone? Did you refrain from those sharp words? If you did, that’s great. If you didn’t, remember we are all human and that this is a lifelong journey
When these steps become habit, aim for two enactments of the positive form of the golden rule and two enactments of the negative version. And then three and then four.
The goal of course is to behave consistently with compassion. But behavior is built on habits, and habits are an accumulation of individual acts. We choose how we will act in this world. Whether you like it or not, it is our responsibility to choose how we will encounter the world around us. This is the gift and burden of human awareness. We can choose to care more fully for the people we love; we can choose to make our world a better place. It all starts with an awareness that our words and actions matter, and requires us to slow down to ask the simple question, “Is this how I would want to be treated?”
Monday, June 10, 2013
For a very long time I have been fascinated by our human ability and our religious calling to care for wider and wider circles of people. I first read about it in seminary. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about these concentric circles of our concern from a theological perspective. Now several of us are reading a book by Karen Armstrong that talks about the same idea from both a religious and biological perspective. It’s a very simple idea, but the implications are pretty amazing.
The idea is that we have a natural biological inclination for social relationship. If you think about it, we are pretty weak and fragile compared to the rest of the natural world. We don’t possess great physical strength or stamina. We don’t have strong bodies that protect us from the elements or potential predators. But low and behold, we have survived to multiply in tremendous numbers. We have become arguably the most influential members of the animal kingdom.
It’s because we have evolved over time to be social beings. We have evolved a capacity for emotional engagement and understanding that transcends our immediate physical desires and compulsions. I’m not saying that other animals don’t have this as well. I am saying that the need to have a circle, a clan, is especially pronounced for humans. And it is a part of our basic wiring.
In her introduction to her book on compassion, Karen Armstong starts with a very scientific perspective. She writes about the old brain and the new brain. Old and new here aren’t about the age of a person, they are about the way that the human brain has developed over millennia through evolution. You see we still have the old portion of our brain, the reptilian self-defense mechanism.
But over millennia we developed a “new brain” which is home of the reasoning powers. Our capacity for reason and love came with amazing physical adaptation, namely a larger head. Over time we developed larger skulls to make room for this giant brain. We even adapted the course of childbirth. Because a large head makes childbirth more difficult, humans evolved to give birth to less mature infants who would be dependent on their mothers for a tremendous amount of time, to allow the birth of a body with a head large enough for our amazing brains.
This new brain must have been a tremendous advantage to drive those changes in evolution. And in deed it is. Our new brain enables us to reflect on the world around us and to be conscious of ourselves in that world. And along with that ability to for critical thought comes the capacity for compassion.
What we are talking about today is embracing that very human capacity for compassion for our clan, and exercising it to embrace wider and wider circles of concern. As I said earlier, you can see these circles of caring as concentric circles that get bigger and bigger. At the center of the circle is self. We are animals after all. And immediately surrounding self are the close family and friends who we know intimately. Then a wider community of those we are generally close with. This would probably be the clan or the village that we were genuinely evolved to hold within our sphere of sincere concern.
But our world today is much broader than the village or clan. Every one of us hears the news of what affects people around the world. What’s more, because of our global economy and ecology, every one of us makes daily decisions that impact people all over the world.
Our task then, is to grow our hearts and our minds to incorporate sincere concern for the much larger circle. The task before us, particularly as people of faith, is to expand the horizon of our compassion, to include more and more people. If you are a visual person, it’s sort of like the picture on the screens. Our concern for our own well-being is at the center. And then our family and closest friends. The next circle out might be neighborhood, school or church. Then we think about an entire town, our county, all other humans, and other beings. Our heart and focus is naturally drawn toward the center few rings of the circle, but we can and should reach beyond that concern.
I have said many times before that we Unitarian Universalists believe that courageous love will transform the world. Courageous love sill transform the world. Some hear that phrase and they immediately think of social justice, the courage to stand in picket lines and speak truth to power. That is certainly part of what we believe in. But today I want to invite you to see that courage not only in action, but courage in an broadening of our hearts. It takes tremendous courage to become vulnerable, and that is precisely what we are doing when we bring more people into our sphere of compassion. We are risking caring about them, risking heart-ache and worry.
There are several different ways of going about broadening our circle of concern. If you want a very specific thing you can do, try learning about another culture. This is a little counter intuitive to what we have been talking about, bringing wider and wider circles of people into the realm of our concern. But the truth is, we can’t take in all the information about world events a meaningful way. Our lives are awash in information from people around the globe. It is far more information that we can process. This is the flip side of our shrinking world.
But there is an alternative. Rather than having cursory knowledge about everything in the world, try focusing on one region, one culture. If we can focus on one specific community that is different from our own, we have an opportunity to learn enough about them to compare and contrast our own life experience. We have enough awareness to begin to understand their experience as human beings, not just numbers.
The quickest way to have this type of engagement is through travel. But it’s not completely necessary. With the internet and libraries, movie theaters and restaurants, it’s very possible to get a solid understanding of a different culture. Make it a project to focus on getting to know one culture that is different from your own, in a real in depth way. And I promise you, the feelings you have when you read about them in the paper will be different. The more we know about people, the more we are able to open our hearts to sincerely caring about them. We can’t know about all of them, but we can pick one or two different cultures to focus on.
Another way to broaden the circle is the meditation we did earlier. This very common form of Buddhist meditation seems to tap right into the evolutionary needs of our human mind and emotions. After finding a quiet time and space, perhaps the hardest part of thise whole meditation practice, we focus on our selves. For a short time we bring wishes of health and wholeness, a general blessing if you will, for our self. Then we expand to think of one or two individual people that we care about. Then broaden the circle to people you are ambivalent about, maybe a friend of a friend, or the person who checked you out at the grocery story. The exercise gets really interesting when we focus our compassion and blessing onto a person that we have conflict with. Remembering that they have the same challenges, the same pain, the same joy that we do, we hold a hope for their wholeness and healing. And the meditation ends with offering a sense of blessing for all beings in the world.
I know meditation sounds like an eccentric thing to do on your own. But it’s really not that big of a deal. It just takes a few minutes, start with five and build up from there. It just takes a few minutes, a quiet place, and your good intentions. If you want the science behind it, this form of meditation is actually an intentional way to train our brains. It’s an exercise in building our emotional capacity to care for wider circles of people. We train our brains to reinforce these neural pathways of sympathetic emotion, and to keep the neurochemicals like serotonin, the soothing healing chemical, flowing. See, it’s not as hippy dippy as you thought, is it?
The last way of expanding our compassion I want to talk about isn’t so much a specific exercise, as it is a way of encountering the world around us. The best and perhaps hardest way to expand or circle of care is to not explain away the uncomfortable. We can’t absorb everything, but we can push ourselves to open our eyes, ears, and hearts a little more every day. Don’t explain away the hard things that you hear and see. When you read the news, try to remember that the stories you are hearing are about real people like you and me. When you encounter homeless people, remember that they too are just like you and me. They have a few more problems and challenges in life, but at the end of the day, they are flesh and blood human beings with the same complex emotional life that we each have. When you hear difficult news from a friend, sit just listen and wait before you shut down the conversation or assure him or her that everything will be okay. As we talked about in our book discussion group last week, that’s one of the hardest things in the world to do.
Expanding our circle of compassion, as light and lovely as it sounds, is actually hard work. Admittedly it comes more naturally to some than to others. But we all have the capacity to broaden the horizon of our concern. Think of it as an exercise.
And exercise is hard. I am a runner. I love doing it most of the time. I can’t tell you how many people tell me that they think running is awful, how bad they are at it, and how much they dislike it. Nine times out of ten, it is because they have tried it once or twice and thought it was too hard. They tried to go out and run and mile and nearly died. But the trick is you have to start very, very gradually and be patient. As your endurance grows you can run farther and faster. But it takes a long time to get there, and you can’t beat yourself up in the process.
You don’t start with a six-mile run. You don’t begin a yoga practice with standing on your head for twenty minutes. And you don’t begin the exercise of compassion by becoming a saint. It happens one brave step at a time.
I’m sure by now you have noticed the beautiful images that I have incorporated in today’s service. These are mandalas that were painted by Paul Heussenstam, Frances’ son. He lives and paints here in town. I wanted to use them today for two reasons. One is that they are quite obviously circles. But the other is that they are a powerful meditation tool. Mandalas invite the viewer to move beyond his or her personal identity and get lost the experience of exploration. They invite us to transcend ourselves.
A mandala is a tool that religious people have been using in the East for about six thousand years. These pieces of art are intricate and beautiful. But I want to remind you today that these pieces of art are tools. They are tools to help transcend the sense of self, and know and deeper truth. I wanted to use mandalas today because they are often circular, they help transcend the self, and much like our church here, they are a tool that helps point to a deeper truth.
In all this talk of belonging and circles of concern, we cannot escape talking about our circle of caring right here. This is an incredibly caring community. It’s a place where people feel like they truly belong. I’ll never forget hearing from one of our oldest members say that he loved this community because it was the one place in his entire life that he felt truly accepted for who he was.
Belonging is a good thing. It’s an essential piece of our happiness. It’s part of building the clan that I was talking about earlier. And we make that happen here. There is tremendous power in deeply knowing those around you, and being known by them. It is a sense of home.
But beyond building a sense of home, and a clan we also believe in a courageous love. We believe that it is our responsibility to open our hearts to wider circles of concern. Just as strong as the power of knowing one another and being know, is the power of invitation and openness. Just a important as sharing the feast with one another, is holding an empty chair to make sure there is room for one more person to stop by.
As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to a dual task of celebrating those who are in our midst and simultaneously remembering the wider concentric circles of compassion. And our community here can help us do both.
We aim to be a place where people gain a sense of belonging, where we feel we are a part of the tribe. But at the same time, it is our mission as a faith to expand our sense of compassion to broader and broader circles, beyond our own families, beyond the walls of this building, beyond our lovely town, state, and even country. As a religious community we are tasked with drawing the circle wide, making a place of belonging, but also a place where invitation is at the core of who we are.
There is a whole lot going on today, with membership Sunday. We celebrate the commitment that others have made, so that we have UUFLB to call our spiritual home. We celebrate that for nearly sixty five years, committed men and women have built a community of belonging, that invites us to broaden the horizons of our mind and our heart.
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
From the Teacher’s Mouth
As you have already heard, this month we are focusing on the theme of Compassion in our worship services. Regardless of particular theological or political convictions, the principle of compassion rests at the heart of every religious tradition. That common thread could be the basis for many, many sermons. But it occurred to me, to take two of these traditions, the two that I am most familiar with and compare what their teachers had to say on the topic. I decided to compare the teaching of Jesus and the Buddha about two months ago.
And it in a really lovely coincidence, today we are joined by a colleague of mine, Rev. Ken Collier. He will be talking with you all more after the service about the process of searching for a new minister. And since it is Sunday, we also have a really nice opportunity to worship together.
It’s a rare treat to get to preach with someone. I have asked Ken to approach what the Buddha said about compassion. And in a moment I will share some of what Jesus had to say on the topic. We have not compared notes, but I’m fairly certain that we will end in a very similar place. So welcome Ken. We are all yours.
Because Jesus taught through stories, as did the Buddha, I want to tell you a few stories. They are stories that you know, but I want to invite you to listen to them again with fresh ears and attention especially to what they say about compassion.
The night before Jesus was taken by the government and put to death, he gathered in a final meal with his disciples. It was a Passover feast that they enjoyed together. In the middle of the meal Jesus stood up, and “removed his outer garments.” It’s kind of odd to hear, but the depiction that I saw of this was basically him stripping down to a loin cloth, in the middle of a dinner party.
Then he took a wash basin and water and began to wash the feet of each of his disciples.
After he finished he asked them, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.
Time and time again in his ministry Jesus hung out with those who were disenfranchised. We hear stories of him eating meals with tax collectors and associating with women. But this is probably the most striking example of Jesus humbling himself.
He knew that power structures got in the way of human understanding. He knew that roles and societal boundaries had to be broken down for people to really understand one another. So he took it upon himself to humble himself to those who respected him most. In the middle of dinner he knelt down and washed their dirty tired feet.
This isn’t about each one of us becoming lowly and meager in our lives. But it is about us recognizing when we have power over other people. To engage with others in a compassionate way requires that we actively dismantle that power as much as possible, so that we can see eye to eye. Displacing our own power over other people, whenever and however we have it, is a quintessential piece of compassion that we hear in this story.
The second story I want to talk about is almost a complete opposite of the one we just heard. But it is just as important for us to hear, because showing compassion isn’t the same in every situation. In fact compassion depends almost completely on the context. We are called to show compassion for those we are with, in the present moment.
The story tells us, “Now when Jesus was in Bethany, at the home of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an Alabaster vial of very costly perfume. She poured it upon His head, as He reclined at the table, but the disciples were indignant when they saw this, and said why this waste? For this might have sold for a high price, and the money given to the poor. But Jesus, aware of this said to them, ‘Why do you bother the woman? For she has done a good deed to Me. For the poor, you have with you always. But you do not always have Me.’
This peculiar little story packs in a many different messages of compassion. The first is that we never know how long we will have the opportunity to offer the gifts that we have. Life is short and uncertain. It’s not quite so uncertain now as it was in the days of Jesus, but still, we never know how long we have with our loved ones. This day, this moment might just be the last opportunity we have to share our compassion with the person before us. So why hold that gift for another day?
And the story brings up another important piece of compassion, which is how we respond to those around us. Our world is often not a very compassionate place. In fact we have a great tendency to dismiss compassionate acts as unwise, or to find some way to explain them away with self-centered motives. We can be incredibly cynical about the motivations of others. This little story is a challenge to that judgment. It’s an invitation to celebrate good deeds whenever and wherever they occur, even if the method is not what we might have chosen. When you see the compassion of others, celebrate it for the rare gift that it is.
The final lesson that this story brings up is about who needs compassion. It’s not only the destitute who are in need of compassion. Each and every living person faces fears and challenges in life. We all need compassion. Often when I travel in wider circle people make jokes about how easy it must be doing ministry in paradise. I quickly remind them, and I want to remind you that no matter how complete a person’s life may appear, whether leader or follower, rich or poor, surrounded by friends or a lone ranger, they experience pain and loss, and they are each deserving of compassion.
The final story I want to tell is both the most familiar, and the most important window into compassion. It’s the story of the woman who was caught in adultery. The scribes and Pharisees (who we are not supposed to like) brought to Jesus a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They said according to Moses’ law we should stone this woman. But what do you think we should do.
Jesus tried to ignore the question, but they persisted. Finally he said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” It took a while, but eventually all of the men gathered, realizing that none of them were perfect dispersed. And Jesus said to the woman, since none of these men can stand to accuse you, neither will I. Go and sin no more.
Now this story isn’t about fault and innocence. For the woman was caught in adultery. There is no question that she did in fact sin. I also don’t think that the crux of the story is about appropriate punishment of others. In our exploration of compassion, I think this story is an invitation for us to see others, whoever they are, by first remembering our own experiences of pain and brokenness. Because when we remember our own challenges, our own shortcomings and pains, then we can engage compassionately with the other.
The crux of compassion, is in the very Latin root of the word. Com-passion means suffering with. Without linking our own painful experiences to theirs, compassion cannot exist. Mind you, it doesn’t have to be the same pain. Jesus didn’t say, let he who has not committed adultery cast the fist stone. This story might have ended very differently if that were the invitation. But he said, let he who is without sin.
Each and every one of us has experienced pain and loss, we have made mistakes. It behooves us to remember those experiences when we judge others. Not so that we can dismiss moral responsibility. But so that in the end, rather than offering the world a cold stone, we can offer a blessing, to go out and sin no mare.