Living with Compassion

A Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship sermon

Rev. Amy Russell (MVUUF Minister 2007-2013) – August 14, 2011

When I was growing up in an Episcopalian church, we were often taught that the most important of Jesus’ teachings was “to love your neighbor as yourself”. This important teaching has stayed with me as a deep part of my spiritual foundation. Over the years, I’ve continuously tried to embody this principle in my spiritual journey.

Coupled with this teaching were stories about people who were not as well off as ourselves. We were often told that other people in the world didn’t have the food, the clothing, the loving families that we had, and therefore, we must learn to give to others. I can remember being asked to save our dimes and nickels for a certain project, a Thanksgiving basket or a Christmas offering to give to “the poor”. I often wondered who “the poor” were and what my relationship with “the poor” was. Who were these people? What would it be like to know people like this? I often wondered if people that we were supposed to care about were so important, why didn’t we know them?

I guess my imagination was so tied up in this question that I actually wrote a story in eighth grade about a girl my age, Sarah, who gets on a bus going downtown and ends up getting off the bus inadvertently in the what we would call “poor section” of town. She is lost but she’s also curious. She wanders down a street in this unfamiliar neighborhood, and sees a girl her own age sitting on the steps of a house, holding a baby. The girl is staring at her and Sarah says hello. The two strike up a conversation, and when the baby, the girl’s sister, starts crying, Sarah offers the child a candy bar. This seems to pacify the child. As the two girls talk, Sarah is struck by how many interests they have in common. She comes away from the interchange feeling that the girl must live a very different life but is not really very different from herself as a human being. She sees the humanity that they share.

The reason I remember this story that I wrote so well is because I ended up winning an award for it. But what strikes me now remembering it, is how it reflects on the question I had about people that I was taught were “needy” or “poor”. It struck me how in the teaching of our church about helping others, we were somehow making our compassion into charity–which was about giving to people who were somehow “second class” citizens. While the church teaching was about “love your neighbor as yourself”, it became “give to your neighbor who isn’t really as good as yourself”. That is what I felt I was being taught. But that isn’t what the teaching of the Golden Rule says. It says, “love your neighbor as yourself.” This message somehow got garbled in its translation.

The concept of compassion is taught in all the major world religions. The Golden Rule takes different forms in the world religions, but it is central. In Judaism, a story is told about the wise sage, Hillel, who was asked to recite the entire Torah while he stood on one leg. Hillel stood on one leg and replied, “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go and study it.” Hillel believed that the whole of the Torah’s teaching could be summarized by this statement of the Golden Rule.

The golden rule is found also in Mohammad’s words when he said, “Not one of you can be a believer, unless he desires for his neighbor what he desires for himself.” In the religion of Islam, compassion and love for others is just as important as it is in the other religions.

In Buddhism, there are four elements of love – love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. If you practice love with compassion, joy, and equanimity, you are said to have “immeasurable” love, because this kind of love helps you to grow. This kind of love makes you happy as well as the person you are trying to learn to love. This kind of love is said to heal the illnesses of anger, sorrow, insecurity, and hatred. In fact, some Buddhist teachers say that practicing love, compassion, joy, and equanimity is the very nature of enlightenment.

The second of these kinds of love is compassion, called karuna, the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering. The word “compassion” has two parts- com- meaning “together with” and the word “passion”- to suffer. This implies that we are together with and loving another person in their suffering. You have deep concern for another person. You listen deeply to the other person in their pain. You are in fact, in communion, with another person. But the implication is that you really need to know this other person in order to have compassion and to show compassion. But when you practice compassion also with love, joy, and equanimity– you are with this person as equals–both suffering in your lives and both having joy in your lives.

Recently, I watched the movie, “Of Gods and Men”. This movie tells the true story of a French Trappist monastery in Algeria in the 1990’s, during a time when the Christian-led government was in violent conflict with some Muslim groups in the country. The monks in the monastery were led by their elected leader, Christian de Cherge. The monastery was located in a little town where the townspeople were very involved with the monks community. Some of the townspeople worked in the monastery. The monks ran a clinic for the town, and the monks sold honey in the town market. You see in the movie the way that the monks were very involved in the daily lives of the townspeople, a part of their family celebrations, a part of their daily lives. So, when the government soldiers come barging into the monastery declaring that they must protect the monastery from the Muslim terrorists with their arms, and Christian, the abbot, tells them no, that they refuse a violent means of protection, the monks have some disagreement. Some of the monks feel that they should leave the country and return to France, their native country since this conflict has nothing to do with them. They don’t feel safe there. They spend some time praying and discussing this. Some of the monks say that they feel that this is their mission–to stay with the townspeople and continue to be with them and help them, even if they are not safe. When they vote, all the monks decide to stay. They all believe that their God asks them to be with the people in this trouble, not escaping to safety just for themselves. Their religion teaches them that loving their neighbors as themselves means taking the same risks that the townspeople take and being there with them.

Eventually, the terrorists kidnap 7 of the monks and murder them. Christian de Cherge, the abbot, left a letter for his mother that he had written months ahead of his murder. In this letter, he predicts that he might be killed by the Muslims, but he says that he forgives them. He believed that Christians and Muslims could live together practicing their love of God, the same God, showing that there can be peace among them. He explains “The only way for us to give witness is to be what we are in the midst of banal, everyday realities.” He demonstrated in his life and in his death that compassion means showing love, joy, and equanimity with other people, even those very different from yourself, even forgiving them when they harm you.

In our three poems today, each spoke about a different kind of compassion. In the meditation, How We Are Called, we are reminded that we are called to hold in our hands the sorrow of the world, supporting peace by cradling it in our very existence. In the Backscratcher, by David Bumbaugh, we are told the story of how humans lost their touch with one another when they began relying on tools and technology to support themselves instead of being in each other’s lives and offering that support, one to one. The “gentle touch of a living hand” is so much more important than a cell phone, an email, or a skype call.

And in our third poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, we learn that kindness is the deepest thing inside us with sorrow being the other deepest thing. When we have experienced sorrow, we can experience others’ pain. That everything that we rely on, that we hold in our hands, must disappear before we know what others feel. Our deepest sorrow gives us that deepest understanding of walking in another’s shoes.

All of these poems say something about compassion. That compassion is not about “feeling sorry” for others. That it’s not about all the money in the world given away in charitable donations, even though that is still necessary and needed. It’s about our involvement in others’ lives, holding others’ pain, being with others in their joy, being totally immersed with people in relationship, so that we are there when they need something. Living with compassion can mean being together with others in their joy and their sorrow.

The “Charter of Compassion” is a statement that was initated by Karen Armstrong in 2009 when she was given the Ted Prize. The Ted Prize looks for people who have “wishes big enough to change the world” and awards the people who can take the prize money and make something big happen. Karen Armstrong told the Ted Committee that she wished, “that you would help with the creation, launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion, crafted by a group of leading inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect.” She gathered a group of thinkers from across the globe and they wrote a charter that is now being taught about and embraced by thousands of people. The opening statement of this charter is printed on your order of service. It begins by talking about how the principle of compassion is at the heart of all religious and spiritual traditions, being called “The Golden Rule” by many. It goes on to define compassion as taking ourselves out of the center of our own world and putting others there. The loving our neighbors as ourselves really means as it says, “honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity, and respect.”

The charter goes on to talk about our “polarized world” where political and ideological boundaries separate ourselves from each other. It speaks of our deep interdependence and the need for compassion to be at the heart of all human relationships.

The past two weeks have been hard for me. Not because of coming back to work. I love being back here with you. But because of the events of the world seem to show what a broken and hurting place we are. The events in Norway where a crazy man took his hatred and intolerance to extremes and killed and hurt many innocent people. The riots in London stemming from youth who are probably frustrated and feeling disenfranchised but who then turn their frustration out on their neighbors. The Congress of our country who can’t even find enough compassion in their hearts to know what the word “compromise” means. All of this has been weighing heavily on me as I know it has on you.

In this not only polarized world, but this deeply uncivil world, where a husband blasts his hurt and rage over the internet, publicizing his ex-wife’s craziness to the world as well as to his own children, where people driving on highways exhibit their stress with road rage, where expressing one’s intolerance about another’s religion becomes an acceptable way to relate to other humans because you think you have “freedom of religion”. In this hurting, and hurtful world, how can we begin to show an example of true compassion?

There are many people in this world who base their lives around the concept of true compassion for others – people who work directly with people in their pain and difficulty without denigrating their equal position in the world. Karen Armstrong, in her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, talks about several people who live their lives like this. She tells the story of Christina Noble, an Irish woman who grew up in Dublin basically as a street person, sleeping in public toilets and parks. She had no one to turn to when she was raped by two men on the street. And when she found she was pregnant after the rape, had no one to help through her pregnancy. She ended up in relationships with men who were abusive until she finally decided she had to turn her life around. When she did, she had a dream that she wanted to help other people who had experienced the kind of suffering that she had. She went to Vietnam and saw homeless children on the street living the kind of hopeless existence that Christina herself had experienced. She reached out to these children and founded an orphanage where children could learn about their own worth and dignity. Where children could be loved and treated with humanity. She says that when she was a child, she needed just one person who could understand her suffering. She has become that person for many.

Compassion isn’t just about heroic deeds like founding orphanages. It is a spiritual practice to be followed everyday. How do we “love our neighbors as ourselves”. I believe it’s about knowing our neighbors before we can love them. Knowing our neighbors as human beings. Treating each person we meet with worth and dignity as our first principle reminds us. I believe it’s about reaching out to people who may be different from us. Reaching out to people who may not agree with us about our view of religion. Sitting down with people who may not share our background and getting to know what their life is like. Having coffee with someone who may not vote the same way we do, but understanding where their values and beliefs take them in their political views.

So, how do we do this? I know many of you have found ways to do this in your own life. Some of you find ways in your own jobs of broadening the people you know and reaching out to people in a compassionate way. Like getting involved in your community with a voluntary commitment, or a personal commitment in your neighborhood. Some of you volunteer for Planned Parenthood, some are literacy tutors, some of you help at St. Vincent’s every month and take extra time to speak to the people you are serving, getting to know them as individuals. Some of you are involved in environmental groups who reach out to the community. Many of you as parents volunteer in your schools and get to know people that you wouldn’t have known otherwise.

Becoming a part of the community we have formed here and getting to know people here you wouldn’t have known before. Reaching to new people and finding ways of including them in our activities. Getting to know our youth and getting involved in their activities. All of this can be a part of a compassionate life.

Every day, whoever we meet in our lives, deserves to be treated with love, joy, and equanimity as a deep form of compassion. Sometimes the most difficult people to treat with compassion are our family members who often get on our nerves. I think a spiritual practice of compassion could be sitting down with a family member who drives you crazy and find out what’s bothering them, what’s going on in their lives that might cause them to not be easy to deal with.

Having compassion again means having love, joy, and equanimity in sharing someone else’s suffering. A life that is lived with compassion to me means a life that is lived intentionally in reaching out to many kinds of people, lived in a way that notices someone else and what their experience in life is all about.

I’d like to end with the loving kindness meditation that teaches us how to feel compassion for others that we know and that we don’t know and also for ourselves, because we are told “to love your neighbor as yourself.” That starts with loving yourself.

Please join me in this form of compassionate prayer:

May I live in safety. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.

May you live in safety. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease.

May he or she live in safety. May he/she be happy. May he/she be healthy. May he/she live with ease.

May they live in safety. May they be happy. May they be healthy. May they live with ease.

May it be so.