Monday, June 10, 2013
"Draw The Circle Wide" - Sermon
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.