First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Compassion Series: The Call to Compassion

March 4, 2012
Rev. Sandra Fees

I think we can all agree we want to be compassionate. Compassion is one of the cornerstones of our religion and a goal for any caring individual.  Compassion, love, and justice inform our Unitarian Universalist principles and our communal practices. It’s built into our religious tradition, just as it is part of every faith tradition.

The Universalist side of our heritage embodies the concept well. This congregation, with its origins in Universalism, is steeped in a history and knowledge of compassion and love. Love is Universalism’s “motto,” if you will. For those of you who are newer to Unitarian Universalism, these two traditions with their shared liberal religious values and commitments to social justice, merged in 1961. In Universalism, historically speaking, God was conceived of as the source of love. Humans by extension are called upon to love our neighbor, to love each other, and to practice agape love. This kind of love invites us to extend ourselves beyond care for our personal circle of kinship to encompass the whole of creation, to include those beyond the walls of our homes, sanctuaries, or our national borders. It calls on us to practice mutual respect of difference and an inclusive spirituality as well as to practice radical hospitality and openness as guiding principles of faith and holy living.

Compassion demands a lot of us. It means “doing unto others as I would have done unto me.” As much as we aspire to be compassionate, it’s sometimes – actually often - hard to do. Despite an agreement that it’s important, things seem to get in the way. So what is it that gets in the way? What prevents us from acting compassionately?

For one thing, our egos. This is the part of us that needs to be right, to defend our own ideas and territories, to protect ourselves so we’ll feel better, and to blame others. This is the part of us that has an inflated sense of our own self-worth. Egotism places us at the center of existence and makes other people’s needs and interests peripheral. It separates us from other people and places a great distance between us. Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf says the source of the problem lies with the battle of the self. Rauf is Imam of Masjid al-Farah the mosque located 12 blocks from Ground Zero. He says we have to get our egos out of the way. According to Rauf, our mission as humans is to embody the divine attribute of love. Our egotism can derail us from fulfilling that mission (www.charterforcompassion.org).

All too often we hold a bit too tightly to having our own way. We get caught up in who’s right and who’s wrong. That happens in personal relationships with spouses and partners. It’s pretty evident in politics, and also among religions that argue their own right way of believing. Then we start playing the blame game. There’s an awful lot of finger pointing in the world. Blaming others shuts down conversation and prevents intimacy and relationship. You can see this very clearly in your personal relationships with a child or a partner. Just think about those times when one of you says, “it’s your fault we’re late” or “you never do what you say you’ll do” and so on. There’s really no where to go from there. These are sure to start or exacerbate an argument. It’s our egos that push us into placing blame.

In the public square, the battle over who’s right and who’s wrong can become callous, inhumane, even violent, as we know too well. I recently read a blog by an individual with socially liberal views who celebrated the death of Andrew Breitbart, the 43 year old conservative author and activist. Her hatred was so pointed that her response to Breitbart’s death was jubilation. It was a sobering example of what happens when we allow ourselves to care more about winning and being right and our own position than we do about being human, than about a person’s life. We can have a difference of opinion without attaching a person’s basic humanity.

Another way we exert our own egos is by looking for scapegoats to take the blame for problems we see in our lives and social ills. There are numerous examples of blaming the victim. Placing blame on a person who is homeless or mentally ill or suffering from an addiction insulates us from the need to feel compassion for them, to look to other structural failures. I’m not suggesting that individuals shouldn’t be held accountable or responsible for getting the help they may need or for the ways they contribute to their own difficulties. But we can take this so far that we lose our humanity in the process. Sometimes we may need to admit we feel helpless or angry or afraid in these situations, and that we simply don’t know what to do.

Tibetan teacher Pema Chodron describes a conversation she had with an old man who was living on the streets for over four years. No one looks at him or talks to him. Sometimes someone gives him a little money, but no one really looks at him. No one asks how he is. It’s very lonely for him. People respond from discomfort, fear, anger, or judgment. According to Chodron, “Only in an open space where we’re not all caught up in our own version of reality can we see and hear and feel who others really are, which allows us to be with them and communicate with them properly.” This openness is sometimes called emptiness in Buddhism. It means not shutting down or holding on too tightly (When Things Fall Apart, “Widening the Circle of Compassion”).

Our tendency in this country is to have things on our own terms. You all remember the slogan, “Have it your way.” Today not only is pretty much everything able to be customized to our particular set of specs but we expect to have it our way. Relationships don’t work that way. Human interaction doesn’t work that way. We can’t always have it our way. We can’t customize other people to meet our specifications. The only way to be in relationship is to make space for others. This means making room in our hearts and minds for the possibility of someone else’s reality. In the language of the Charter for Compassion, which you heard just a few minutes ago, “Compassion calls us out of our narrow self-centered selves, saves us from wasteful self-involvement, and opens us to the well-being offered to those who share themselves, their resources, and their love with all of humanity.”

Compassion is the stuff of the spiritual path. It’s the path that leads us to be able to see God in another person, to recognize in each person a spark of divinity. This is what we mean when we talk about our first Unitarian Universalist principle, which affirms the worth and dignity of every person. It is also what makes us able to be part of the web of life. We affirm our “network of mutuality” – to use Martin Luther King Jr.’s term - in our seventh Unitarian Universalist principle, which affirms respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Those two principles aren’t just abstract ideas. They capture an essential part of walking the spiritual path. Just recall for a moment a time when you felt you were part of something larger than yourself. You might have been playing with a child. You might have been praying or meditating or singing. You might have been out in nature on a beautiful day.

Can you remember how it felt to be at one with the world? Do you remember what it felt like to have the walls of separation between you and creation, between you and everything else, between you and everyone else, dissolve – even for a moment or two? Many of us describe this experience as a sense of mystical oneness with all life and all that is. Many also describe this as experiencing a compassionate presence. At that moment, there’s no longer an insistence on “me” and “mine.” We may have only fleeting experiences of that oneness. But it’s enough to help us realize the potential we have for “walking in someone else’s shoes.” It’s enough for us to experience the regenerative, peaceful power of compassion. In those experiences, we can each see that capacity in ourselves. We experience what it means to let go of our own egos, even if only for a few moments.

We can each help to make a better, more wonderful world if we learn to live out of that experience. Okay, so what does this mean on a practical level? I invite you to begin by going online and signing the Charter for Compassion at www.charterforcompassion.org. Then choose one specific commitment you can make. You don’t need to pledge to be compassionate 24/7, which is impossible anyway. In fact, in two weeks I’ll be talking about some of the limits of compassion, the importance of self-compassion, and how to balance justice and sanity.

One possible commitment would be to teach your children about compassion. Parents, you can make this a particular emphasis within your own families. You can teach your children about compassion and also engage in acts of compassion as a family.

Another commitment might be to use compassionate language. A few weeks ago I spoke about how important it is for us to be intentional about the language we use and repeat. How can we ensure that the ideas we spread are nonviolent and compassionate? What messages are you sharing with your friends, family, co-workers, and others?

Yet another commitment might be to learn more about how compassion is applied in Unitarian Universalism. You might volunteer with our church’s food pantry or Family Promise. You might read about the Unitarian Universalist “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign. The recent issue of our Unitarian Universalist World magazine includes an excellent piece on immigration justice and how it impacted a congregation in Denver. Kimberly French, a member of the First Unitarian Universalist Society in Middleborough, Massachusetts writes, “Not everyone in the denomination agrees on this divisive and complex issue – what to do as a country, what to do as a religious people…. Yet our religious principles can guide us to some common ground: Everyone should be treated with compassion and dignity. “

Another commitment you might choose is to take a compassionate action every day.” This can mean reaching out to someone who is having a hard time or being supportive of a co-worker.

The Charter for Compassion is our call to restore compassion to the core of religion. It’s a call for us to make compassion a guiding force in our personal lives and in our public lives. It’s a reminder for us to be intentional in our treatment of one another and all of creation. It asks us to strive to move beyond our ego-driven interests in order to alleviate suffering and better the world.

The Charter concludes with these words: “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.” Compassion calls us back to ourselves, back to relationship, back to community. It calls us back to the divine whose name, among others, is compassion. May we heed the call.