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July 24, 2011: “Compassion-The Heart of All Religion”

Last Sunday I told you about what happened at General Assembly, our annual denominational meeting of over 4000 people from all over the country. Today I want to talk about what I was inspired by, what I learned, what my heart heard. It is simply this; at the heart of all religion is the feeling of compassionate connection, more than interdependence, it is compassionate interdependence, love connected to religious relationship that is truly the reason we still exist today; we have been loved into being and must do our part of that loving that is true religion- a profound compassion that connects us all to one another, indeed, connects us so that we become ONE.

There are a multitude of leadership workshops, as well as behavior covenants, mission and visioning programs, a plethora of how to do better church, basically. I have taken countless of those workshops in the past 25 GAs I have attended, read the books, been trained, but I somehow felt the proverbial light bulb, now the squiggly florescent, of course, go off over my head, maybe even enlightenment in especially two speakers- Religious Historian, and best selling author, Karen Armstrong on her book Twelve Steps to a More Compassionate Life, and a relatively new minister, Rev. Karen Anderson, co minister with her husband of the First UU Church of Rochester, NY, in her sermon on Sunday morning, “Only Connect.”

The music as well stirred my soul and provided much new material for worship especially through song leader, Nick Page. Speaking of losing a dear friend some years ago, he said: “After my friend passed away, I was on a tour bus surrounded by members of my MYSTIC CHORALE, the chorus I founded in Boston twenty years ago. In their smiles I could see the smiles of my departed friend. The beauty and joy he had created was still with us. Know this: The good work we do lives on after us. So does the bad. They are just as much a part of our lives as the breathing we enjoy now. I added a new verse paraphrasing “Balm In Gilead,”

"So feel the love around you, This love can heal your soul.
If you let this love within you, This love will make you whole."

What a universal religious message! Love, too is another name for God as well as compassion, therefore compassion is also another name for God. But compassion is more than what we often think of when we think or speak of love, though it must be interrelated, humane. Compassion is defined by one dictionary as “sympathetic” sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. Another uses humane as a synonym- “Marked by an emphasis on humanistic values and concerns: a humane education,” and the word, humane, comes, of course, from the word human; to be truly human one must also be humane. Indeed then to be truly human, perhaps the thing that separates us from other animals, is to be compassionate, passionate with, altruistic, kind, loving, sympathetic, a desire to help others. We have survived, perhaps, by this sense of compassion which is universal and in all religions in some way, even though the Judeo, Christian, Muslim, God concept is not. The kind of humanist I believe in is the truly humane humanity, part of nature, part of the universe, interconnected, interdependent, part of the ONE. Huston Smith, another historian of religions, once said: “The century’s technological advances must be matched by comparable advances in human relations.”

So the whole idea of church should be a place where we learn, teach, and practice compassion knowing that we are connected to one another, learning to be in what Buddha called “Right Relations,” as one of the Eightfold Path to enlightenment.

Karen Armstrong left traditional Christianity because she did not find what she was seeking there. In fact, she says she didn’t God until she left the convent, and Catholicism. Mind you, that doesn’t mean God is not in Catholicism, it means that she didn’t find her God there. Many of us can identify with that, and people have often wondered if she’s not UU. She certainly could be and sounds like it, but perhaps she has more compassion for all religions than many of us do.

For instance when she said: “As you get ready to take the next step, you might like to include this very early Buddhist poem in your daily routine. It is a marvelous conclusion to the Immeasurable: “Let all beings be happy! Weak or strong, of high, middle or low estate, small or great, visible or invisible, near or far away, alive or still to be born. May they all be perfectly happy! Let nobody lie to anybody or despise any single being anywhere. May nobody wish harm to any single creature out of anger or hatred! Let us cherish all creatures, as a mother her only child! May our loving thoughts fill the whole world, above, below, across “without limit; our love will know no obstacles” a boundless goodwill toward the whole world, unrestricted, free of hatred or enmity. Whether we are standing or walking, sitting or lying down, as long as we are awake we should cultivate this love in our heart. This is the noblest way of living.”

I thought it sounded familiar, and sure enough I checked our hymnal, and it is one of our responsive readings from the Buddhist traditions!

I have read almost all her many books and have always been inspired and enlightened by them, especially her books on Islam. In her latest book, she departs from just writing about comparative religion and creates a 12 step program for people, she says, who are addicted to the ego, to having their own way, whether it be religiously, emotionally, or politically.

She writes: “People often ask: “How do we start?” The demands of compassion seem so daunting that it is difficult to know where to begin hence this twelve-step program. It will immediately bring to mind the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. We are addicted to our egotism. We cannot think how we would manage without our pet hatreds and prejudices that give us such a buzz of righteousness; like addicts, we have come to depend on the instant rush of energy and delight we feel when we display our cleverness by making an unkind remark and the spurt of triumph when we vanquish an annoying colleague. Thus do we assert ourselves and tell the world who we are. It is difficult to break a habit upon which we depend for our sense of self. As in AA, the disciplines learned at each step in this program have to become a part of your life.

But it is important to say that the twelve-step program does not depend on supernatural or creedal convictions. I am in agreement with His Holiness the Dalai Lama that “whether a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good human being.” At their best, all religious, philosophical, and ethical traditions are based on the principle of compassion. As an initial step, it might be helpful as a symbolic act of commitment to visit and register with the Charter for Compassion.”

What a way to honor the religions of the world as well as the nonreligious; what a way to save the world! What a way to remind us what religion should be about, and what WE should be about in our own beloved community, our own congregation of not having to believe alike to walk together! We also need to be compassionate together!

“In Semitic languages,” she writes, “the word for “compassion” (rahamanut in post-biblical Hebrew and rahman in Arabic), is related etymologically to rehem/RHM (“womb”). The icon of mother and child is an archetypal expression of human love. It evokes the maternal affection that in all likelihood gave birth to our capacity for unselfish, unconditional altruism. It may well be that the experience of teaching, guiding, soothing, protecting, and nourishing their young taught men and women how to look after people other than their own kin, developing a concern that was not based on cold calculation but imbued with warmth. We humans are more radically dependent on love than any other species. Our brains have evolved to be caring and to need care, to such an extent that they are impaired if this nurture is lacking. Mother love involves affective love; it has a powerful hormonal base, but it also requires dedicated, unselfish action “all day and every day.”

There have been studies and books dedicated to the theory that we have a kind of compassion and altruism hot-wired into our brains, perhaps even God is in there! Just as the anthropologist Margaret Mead remarked, when asked what the first sign of a civilization is, she answered, “A broken femur or leg because it showed that someone had had to care for that person, someone, even a tribe, had had to be altruistic instead of selfish. The weak don’t usually survive the blood and claw of nature, unless someone helps someone else, and it’s no different today!”

“This voice of compassion is not confined to the distant past,” Armstrong comments, “We have heard it in recent times. At the end of his life, Gandhi claimed that he no longer hated anybody. He might hate the oppressive system of British colonialism, but he could not hate the people who implemented it. “Mine is not an exclusive love. I cannot love Moslems or Hindus and hate Englishmen. For if I love merely Hindus and Moslems because their ways are on the whole pleasing to me, I shall soon begin to hate them when their ways displease me, as they may well do any moment. A love that is based on the goodness of those whom you love is a mercenary affair.” Without any feelings of recrimination, Nelson Mandela walked out of the South African prison in which he had been confined for twenty-seven years, and when he came to power initiated a process of reconciliation rather than seeking revenge. The Dalai Lama was exiled from Tibet by the Chinese as a young man, and although he saw his monasteries destroyed and his monks massacred, he has persistently refused to condemn the Chinese. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that the highest point of Jesus’ life was the moment when he forgave his executioners, when instead of attempting to defeat evil with evil, he was able to prevail over it with good: “Only goodness can drive out evil and only love can overcome hate.”

She tells stories from all the major religions, and though the ones we are most familiar with are Christian, Buddha was often called the Compassionate one as well the awakened one. She emphasizes how much we in the West have had difficulties being compassionate with, understanding, and respecting Islam, especially after 9/11, yet Mohammed taught compassion as well as Jesus and Buddha, and we might be hard pressed to determine which religion was less compassionate to each other than Christianity and Islam or for that matter, Christianity and Judaism, from which it grew! Read her biography of Muhammad, or her Short History of Islam, or The Battle for God, or her best book, I think, The History of God.

One of her recommendations in 12 Steps to a More Compassionate Life is to make ourselves more aware of the world from different perspectives, different religious beliefs, different ways at looking at world history to see what our country and the West has done to the Arab world, for instance say nothing about oppression and colonialization throughout modern history. Think about the fact that the civil rights laws were only enacted and blatant segregation ended in the 1960s, and of course, we still battle racism, sexism, classicism, homophobia, and other prejudices. At a General Assembly where Social Justice Issues continue to be one of the most important elements, we see the compassion lived out often more than in the discussion about social justice! And certainly in politics we need more compassion from both parties and between both parties.

And lastly, how compassion relates to us as Unitarian Universalists and especially to us as part of a beloved community called East Shore UU Church. The other Karen, Anderson, co minister with her husband of the First UU Church of Rochester, NY, in her sermon on Sunday morning, “Only Connect.” She took what Karen Armstrong had said the night before and made it Unitarian Universalist at a time when we celebrate 50 years of merger between the Unitarians and the Universalists as well as a 50 year struggle to define ourselves theologically without leaving anyone out!

“And notice here,” she preaches, “and this is where we get to the rub of my sermon today “notice” whenever Armstrong tells this story (as she did the other night) she’s goes out of her way to stress that God wasn’t mentioned, nor was Mt. Sinai, the law of the holy land or other values inseparable from mainstream Judaism. She emphasizes that Hillel summed up the allegiance of Judaism as being devoted to that experience of compassion and connection. She often goes on and does the same analysis of stories from other religious traditions. Now when she does this, what I hear her doing is not just affirming the worth of many beliefs and many traditions but boldly proclaiming that those diverse beliefs and traditions are accountable to a higher standard. She is declaring and calling every religion to a higher authority, the higher authority of the experience of compassion and connection.”

Measure everything in terms of compassion and we could save the world! But we ourselves, of course, have to learn in steps of 12 perhaps, how to live a truly compassionate life of compassion and connection; it isn’t easy. Jesus tried to do it and others have done it since, but oh they are rare, my friends, and I know that I need more compassion in my life and I get paid to be religious! I also know how often we are told that compassion is impractical, especially in business, but what place needs it more, especially right now in these tough economic times. Let’s talk about balancing the budget, for intense, with compassion!

Anderson goes to say, “Now I’ll be shocked if I don’t get push back about this, but if this experience of spiritual connection and compassion is the best way to define the core purpose of our faith, if this is where we are at and captures what we are about, then friends I can guarantee you, there is a huge hurting world out there waiting for our help. Again, I’m open to the possibility that our experience at First Unitarian in Rochester may not be representative. But from where I stand, the majority of people newly in our pews are no longer asking, “Do I have to leave my brain outside your doors?” but “Do I have to leave my pain outside your doors?” And I honestly don’t even hear them emphasizing their primary hunger as helping them explore spiritual depth or build their own theology. No, what we hear them saying is: “Hey there is a world out there, ripping my life apart and I’m wondering if this place can offer me any help? Seriously, I can’t deal with a materialist, consumerist, shallow, selfish, status obsessed, indifferent, violent, economically unstable culture, a world that threatens to disconnect me from everything I hold dear, everything that truly feeds me, everything that makes me feel whole on my own. I can’t do it in isolation, I want to know will this place help me stay connected?”

Without compassion, the world dies a slow, lonely, painful unjust death; we suffer alone without connection. That concept of a mother’s love is one most of us can relate to; one might even think that God should be more believable as a Mother God, giving birth in creation, loving us like children. Perhaps the suppression of women is the suppression of compassion as well; maybe that is the threat to male authority figures though out the world.

Come all you who are heavy laded, lonely, in pain, unsure, come and be blest here in a room full, a church full of compassion, to save the world, to save each other, to save ourselves from the meaninglessness, the loneliness, the spiritual starvation, the lack of justice, the loss of hope.

Words of wisdom and compassion: Liane Hansen’s last broadcast of Weekend Edition Memorial Day on NPR. She interviewed a country doctor in Maine. Dr. David Loxtercamp, summing up what he’s learned in his lifetime as a physician, sounded more like a mystic, and think of how this relates to compassion and connection: “Health is not a commodity. Risk factors are not disease. Aging is not an illness. To fix a problem is easy, to sit with another suffering is hard. Doing all we can is not the same as doing what we should. Quality is more than metrics. Patients cannot see outside their pain, we cannot see in, relationship is the only bridge between. Time is precious; we spend it on what we value. The most common condition we treat is unhappiness. And the greatest obstacle to treating a patient’s unhappiness is our own. Nothing is more patient-centered than the process of change. Doctors expect too much from data and not enough from conversation. Community is a locus of healing, not the hospital or the clinic. The foundation of medicine is friendship, conversation and hope.”

May we learn to live more compassionate lives. May we teach and reach each other and the world outside. May we invite one new person to worship with us, and may we love one another.

Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum (may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity with me greets the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. “Vaya con Dios” is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is “Go with God,” So I adapted it to say “Vaya Con Su Dios,” Go with your idea or interpretation of God.”

Charter of Compassion

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others “even our enemies” is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings, even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.