When I lived in New York City, every day walking down the street there were street people asking for money, on every street corner, at every subway stop, at every intersection when you stopped at a red light. Earlier in my life, out of an instinctual habit, I would give the loose change in my pocket away. Then I started running short of money myself. Then some of the street people would become violent if you didn’t give them money. Such a thing can harden the heart of a person. You start to think that you are being taken advantage of. And you know deep in your heart that you can not help everyone. We become overwhelmed by the amount of suffering in the world.
But just because we cant help everyone doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help who we can. And it doesn’t mean we should stop trying to make our community a more compassionate place that alleviates such suffering that causes this need. It doesn’t matter whether our circumstances are pure chance or a design or a test. Those of us who have achieved something in life often believe because we have achieved something, because we have overcome some hardship, so therefore we think anyone should be able to do so. So I would ask you to think, what do we really know of another’s circumstances.
Think about just the people in this sanctuary, what do you really know about the history, pain, sorrow, and challenges of all the people around you let alone others in our greater community, or those a half a world away, and think about whether they know your history, your deep pain, your deep sorrows. When I started this spiritual quest that led me to ministry, whenever a street person would ask me for money for food, I would offer to take them out to lunch. Now some of course declined immediately, but often many accepted. And I heard their stories, stories of hardship, stories of bad decisions, stories of illness.
Often they didn’t have someone in their life, who could help them, or they felt shamed by their predicament and in all cases they were very much alone. Now there were times in my life when I made bad decisions. Some were small, some were large. I am fortunate that I have had family and friends to support me when I have fallen, and when hearing these people’s stories I often think there but for the grace of the universe go I.
So how do we build resiliency in the face of adversity and an uncertain future. What keeps us going when we fall, when we fail, when we are stuck? Some resiliency can come from being able to look back on past successes we have had in the past, knowing if but given the opportunity we could again, we could succeed. How is resilaincy developed in the first place? Is it something that can be taught, or is it something that is intrinsic? Like most things I believe there is a balance. I often think of the movie Batman Begins, when after some “evil doers “ burn down Stately Wayne Mansion, Bruce Wayne the alter ego of Batman is bemoaning the tradgedy, and his trusty Butler Alfred says, your legacy is more than bricks and mortar. And then looks at Bruce Wayne and says Why do we fall. And answering his own question he says “so we can learn how to pick ourselves back up.” And Bruce Wayne looks back at him and says You still haven’t given up on me. And Alfred responds, “Never.” I think in that little interlude speaks volume about how to build resiliency and how we deal with adversity. It helps us to know we are not alone. It helps to be encouraged and to be reminded of who we are and what we are capable of. Or what we are potentially capable of. I think back to when I was young, I would go over to my grandfather’s house on Sunday mornings.
Each and every Sunday he would tell me that I could do anything I put my mind to, if I just worked hard enough at it. Just don’t give up he would say. On days when the wind would blow hard, or the rain would fall or the road just seemed too long, his voice would pop up in my brain. Just don’t give up. Now after a lifetime of experiences, I know that there were things I couldn’t have done in my life. I know that no matter how hard I would have worked I could never have been the starting point guard for the New York Knicks. But in the back of my mind, when I doubted myself, I always heard his voice. He is still with me in my soul. That is his legacy to me.
But I know that there are many others who are alone, many who have not had mentors, many who have not had opportunities, many who do not get second chances.
And so I ask you to think about what or who has given you resiliency to get to this point in your life. And I also ask you to think about what you can do to help someone else build resiliency. What can you do to encourage someone, what can you do to help someone lift themselves up, what can you do to make someone else realize they are not alone in the world.
Last summer when I and a few of our members attended General Assembly, the national gathering of Unitarian Universalists the Keynote Speech was given by the religious scholar Karen Armstrong. She has written extensively on comparative religion. She talked about her project the Charter of Compassion, the symbol of which is on the front of the order of service. She spoke of her book 12 steps to a compassionate life. Now starting Thursday Evening March 29th our Adult Religious Education program will be leading a class on this book. I strongly encourage you to attend.
We often tend to think of compassion as pity of feeling sorry for someone else, but as Armstrong points out the etymology of the word compassion indicates that its meaning is to endure something with another person. This is more like the definition I use of empathy. Putting yourself in another’s shoes. And Armstrong defines compassion “ as an attitude of principled, consistent altruism” Being a comparative religious writer she goes on to speak about how the Golden Rule is an underlying value in all major religious traditions that exemplifies compassion.
Now in the West we tend to associate it with Jesus, as he says in the gospel of Matthew and Luke, “ Do to others as you would have them do to you. “ which as I spoke earlier in the year, this was drawn from the Jewish Scriptures of Leviticus. 500 years earlier than Jesus Confucius said “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself” Ancient Hindu Texts read “One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. Other behavior is due to selfish desires” and from the words of Mohammad “As you would have people do to you, do to them, and what you dislike to be done to you don’t do to them.” Muhammad combined both the positive and negative aspect of the Golden Rule. But my favorite is from the famed Jewish Rabbi Hillel, when asked if he could recite the Torah while he stood on one foot, Hillel did by saying: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow human: this is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary: now go and learn" Go and learn. What can we learn about compassion. One of the earlier chapters in the book, Armstrong focuses on the need to have compassion for ourselves before we can offer it others. For if we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, we need to love ourselves first. And to love ourselves first we need to know ourselves.
In her speech Armstrong was very specific in naming the book 12 steps as a deliberate allusion to alcoholic anonymous so as to heighten our awareness that we are and I quote “addicted to our dislikes and prejudices and pet hates. We often define ourselves as an individual and as a community against other people. They are what we are not. it's slightly addictive, but of course, it's poisoning us, and it's poisoning the atmosphere.” Most religious cultures, speak of a journey into the wilderness before enlightenment. This does not have to be a literal wilderness, but the journey into the hardness that has become our hearts.
Let us journey there and realize what pain and sufferring have caused such hardening. And let us be willing to soften our hearts by forgiving others, and even more importantly by forgiving ourselves. When I was working as a chaplain in a hospital, when a person was in the hospital as a result of a bad choice they had made, I would often ask them, if they believed God forgave them. Without fail they would say yes. And then I would ask them, if they believed God forgave them, could they forgive themselves. Often the answer was no, and I would ask them to contemplate that. And I would contemplate that.
We allow others to forgive us before we forgive ourselves. Maybe it is our unwillingness to accept the realization that we are imperfect human beings. However I think our inability to forgive ourselves also points to our separateness from the divine mystery of the universe, the realization of our failure to see the interdependence of all that is. In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven is inside you and all around you, When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of a loving God. But if you do not know yourselves then you live in poverty.”
Know yourself, understand the pain that has hardened your heart, be known by others, and then get to know others and the pain that has hardened their hearts. Most of all love yourself, Love yourself for the unique creation that you are. Recognize your interdependence with all that is. Give yourself the permission to respond from a place of love, not hate, respond from a place of patience, not impulsiveness. Respond from a place of compassion, not indifference. Recognize that all your actions, in words and deeds do impact others for better or for worse. Let us work towards the better.
And this is at the core of our religion. One of the sources of wisdom from which Unitarian Universalism draws from is the Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love and our second principle states that we affirm and promote justice equity and compassion in human relations. Well I wont get into what we mean by evil right now, that would be another whole sermon. Or even a sermon series….but what I want to focus on is that compassion requires action. And compassion in human relations means we must relate to other people.
It means we have to get involved with others. I encourage you to be intentional about living out the golden rule. How would you like to be treated. Do you like when someone does a random act of kindness for you? Then think about doing a random act of kindness for someone else. Do you know someone who is struggling with something in their life. Think about how you would like help if you were struggling. But also acknowledge your awareness of it and ask them how they would like your help. But also let us live out the negative of the golden rule, Do not treat others as you would not like to be treated. Did someone do something you disagree with? Think about how you would want to be treated if someone disagreed with something you did or said? Do you like to yelled at or dismissed? Compassionate acts can save lives, Compassionate acts can change lives, Compassionate acts can open other’s hearts, and can open your own heart. So I ask you to be intentional in every interaction you have, and to not turn away from potential interactions and ask yourself, how can I respond in a compassionate, loving, kind way. May it be so.