November 15, 2015 Sermon by Art

 Compassion: The Nature of Reality (GOD)?

“Which do you think American teens value more, achievement or caring for others?” begins a piece in the Boston Globe in the Summer of 2014. “Caring ranks third behind academic achievement and personal happiness, according to a recent survey of 10,000 middle and high school students from 33 schools across the nation.” The survey was done through Harvard Graduate School of Education in a project called “Making Caring Common Project,” a program administered by Professor Rick Weissbourd whose aim is “to help parents and teachers inspire children to be caring, respectful, and responsible human beings.” Clearly “kids do care,” says Weissbourd, “but this caring is subordinate to achievement and personal happiness,” as “80% …picked high achievement or happiness as their top choice, while 20% selected caring for others.”
“Much of that pressure, the teens reported, comes from their parents and teachers,” so the author of the Globe piece, reporter Deborah Kotz asked her “16 year-old son whether he thought (she) emphasized his academic accomplishments more than his caring deeds,” he responded, “Is this a trick question? … obviously (you) cared more about how he did in school, though he knew (she) also wanted him to be kind to others.”

A bit unnerved by this and wondering about her parenting skills (or priorities), she asked the researcher “why he thinks it’s so important for kids to rank being caring as number one,” to which he responded, “If kids are caring, they can tune into other people and will have better relationships their whole lives, they’ll be better parents, friends, and spouses and will likely be happier due to these stronger relationships.”

Besides the fact that I could get the books for $5 each, I decided to do our current adult education on Karen Armstrong’s recent study entitled TWELVE STEPS TO A COMPASSIONATE LIFE somewhat based on this rather troubling piece.

Among other things Armstrong, a prolific writer and serious historian of religion, believes that just about all of the great religious insights were articulated in what she refers to as the Axial Age, a designation of the period from roughly 9th century BCE and 2nd Century BCE, meaning that the three great monotheistic religions, Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all pretty much owe their best insights to this period represented by Hinduism, Buddhism and Jain from India, Confucianism and Taoism from China, Monotheism from the Middle East and, finally, Greek Rationalism. And, in her view, what characterizes all of these traditions is the centrality of the so-called Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do to yourself,” ( a variation from Christianity: love neighbor as self) in short compassion is the center all these traditions share. And what is compassion? In her definition: “To endure (something) with another person, to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel her pain as though it were her own, and to enter generously into her point of view.”

Here’s the only problem: Easier said than done! Compassionate behavior is not always so easy. It takes lots of practice, writes Armstrong. She’s not telling us anything we don’t already know, right, especially when it comes to difficult people or situations, when anger and frustration seems a more likely response, and, perhaps, more natural. But, suggests Armstrong, compassion actually is natural to human beings, that is, we are hard-wired for compassion in her view, the problem is we are also hard-wired for cruelty, egotism and greed. So, she concludes, cruelty and benevolence are both in our natures, yet it seems selfishness or even cruelty can happen more instinctively, whereas compassion and empathy seem to need more nurturing, more repetition and practice. Part of this is our conditioning or context, she writes, that is, our society and the worst expressions of capitalism can be very competitive and contentious, individualistic, encouraging us to put ourselves first, gain advantage over the other. It takes commitment and work to overcome some of these tendencies. And it often takes good mentoring. We can recognize compassion in another person and we admire it; we somehow know, intuitively, it represents the best in us as a race.

There was a very compelling story on the evening news the other night. It seems a bus driver stopped his bus in the city and jumped out to track down a policeman to tell him that a passenger was about to harm himself with a hatchet pressed up against his neck. The passenger told the bus driver that life was pointless and cruel and there was little reason to go on. The policeman entered the idled bus and tried to engage the passenger, asking him to hand over the hatchet. He wouldn’t. Then a backup cop stepped on the bus, approached the passenger and calmly said, excuse me sir, are you a veteran, to which the man answered: yes. The policeman then said: thank you for your service to all of us. The passenger put the hatchet down and said he was grateful for those words of kindness and said he needed help. And they took him off to the hospital. So simple; so thoughtful; so compassionate; so astute as to what might be going on in another human being.

Although Armstrong’s book is partly about the historical significance of compassion as central to all major religions going back to the Axial Age, it’s really a practical book about learning and nurturing compassionate behavior. In each of the 12 steps, she has recommendations for putting compassion into action. She recommends starting simply, attempting to become more aware of ourselves and our own behavior a day at a time. She suggests there are what she calls 4 immeasurables, insights, principles for meditation, and practices that can help us become more compassionate: LOVING KINDNESS (friendship for all), COMPASSION (wishing that all will be free of pain and suffering), joy, and, finally, even-mindedness, freeing ourselves from all attachments to be available and loving to all. If we become aware of these “immeasurables” every day and practice them with some discipline, our lives will change and so will the world around us.

Armstrong sites the great Chinese philosopher Confucius who imagined our lives and relationships in concentric circles: the inner circle, family, the next friends, then community, and finally, country and world. We need to start meditating in our daily lives, as we interact with family and go off to work, on these 4 immeasurables. Armstrong suggests we start with family. For most of us things are not perfect in the family; there is work to do and relationships to improve and repair. And many of us know that isn’t always easy. One exercise she suggests is to focus on someone (possibly in the family) whom you dislike and as you apply the 4 immeasurables to them, “think of their good points…look into their hearts…see their pain…sufferings…desire them to be free of their pain…wish for their joy in life as you desire it for yourself…and finally,  admit that all have faults.” She, of course acknowledges how difficult this is regarding someone you dislike or have anger toward. “Stay with this difficulty and become fully aware of it, because it shows how limited your compassion is…notice the angry thoughts that arise in your mind when you think of this person (realize that) it is probable that your dislike stems (almost) entirely from her attitude to you!” Then, she concludes, remember that “like everybody else in the world, she longs for happiness and wishes to be free of pain. She (likely) suffers in ways that you will never know.” And, of course, “be patient with yourself during this meditation.” It may take time; a lifetime!

As I mentioned in a sermon recently, reflecting on my sister’s life and death, things were not always easy in relationship with her. There were times when I had intense dislike of being in her presence. That got better in the last few years as she suffered from various maladies, especially in the last months when she was very sick. I let go of a lot but I was mostly helped by good mentoring from my wife, Melanie, who was always kind to my sister, but even more so by my niece, my sister’s oldest daughter, who showed me enormous compassion for a mother who was not always at her best. My niece felt deep empathy for the suffering my sister went through and she cared for her so beautifully. Observing that behavior altered me and helped me become a bit more compassionate. What a gift.

Now imagine reaching Confucius’ outer ring of compassion for the country and the world, or even more especially, the challenge of Jesus to “love one’s enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.” Anyone ready to take that on?; Surely not I.  Yet, the great wisdom teachers seem to suggest that we will never attain peace until we reach that stage; as long as we return hate and violence for more hate and violence, the carnage will only increase. Who will break the cycle? Responding to the recent report that so-called “Jihadi John,” the English citizen and terrorist who cut the head off of reporter James Foley, and whether or not his apparent death offered any closure or consolation, were they glad this terrorist was finally dead, the parents of Foley said absolutely not. It wouldn’t bring their beloved Jim back; it solved nothing; it was just another act of violence, thus escalating the situation with no end in sight. Their loss goes on. Though they may not have reached the stage where they could even imagine compassion for the likes of their son’s killer, they certainly seemed aware of the enormous suffering of so many as the violence escalates. And, in the face of yet another tragedy and act of brutality, as hundreds died or were wounded Friday in France, how could any of us imagine compassion for the murderers?

Gandhi was purported to say not long before his murder that he hated no one, only the brutal colonial system that oppressed so many. Even though the victim of hate himself, Dr. King refused to indulge in hateful responses, suggesting: “only love can cure this disease;”… Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it; hatred darkens life, love illuminates it.”

For those searching for God in all of this, I shared with the adult education class a short article on compassion by spiritual writer Rosemary Haughton. In it she suggests: “compassion is not just a human emotion…(it is) the (very) nature of reality.” In the piece she refers to a Jewish commentary (Midrash) that suggests “The Holy One” wept after the liberation of the Hebrew people and when “the angels’ asked the Holy One why tears and not celebration, the response was: “Are not these Egyptians also my children? And should I not weep for them?” Haughton suggests that shouldn’t talk “about a God who is compassionate, an exterior God being compassionate, but about compassion as the very nature of God and the nature of reality…compassion is inherent; it is the very breath of the cosmos, of creation. That is why evil is not the last word, although destruction, pain and fear are real and inevitable.” That is, as I understand it, as in the Jewish Midrash, the Holy One, as compassion itself, suffers with us in the tragic yet beautiful life we all share. I’m still pondering that one.

We’ve got our work cut out for us if the results of the Harvard research are accurate regarding our kids, i.e., if you remember, achievement and happiness currently trump caring and compassion. Parents and other family members, educators, ministers, neighbors, public servants, all of us have lots of practice to do in passing on a compassionate message to our youngsters. It’s hard work; it takes lots of practice; “a lifelong project,” writes Armstrong. But we all have mentors; special people in our lives who embodied compassion. Some of them are even in our families and in this very church. Let’s observe how they do it and learn ourselves. What could give more meaning to our lives together? Blessings.

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