Can you remember the last time you were so moved by what you witnessed, by a story you heard, by a news report, that you felt a strong sense of connection and compassion – desiring with the core of your being to do something, to somehow alleviate the suffering?  Many people are moved by the stories of lost animals or the suffering of animals. Some of you are tracking the stories of the soccer team of young boys stranded with their coach for the past 2 weeks in a flooded cave in Thailand – a story that has gripped the attention of the world. 4 of the 12 boys were rescued just this morning.

Some of you have been responding with a compassionate heart to the crisis at the border – of families seeking asylum being separated by our government.  Judges have been rejecting asylum claims at the highest rate in more than a decade, with the AG issuing a ruling makes it much harder for Central Americans to qualify for protection under U.S. law. Last Saturday, at least a dozen people from UCUP attended the “Families Belong Together Rally” in downtown Tacoma.  Last Sunday, Angie & I joined with Hank and Judy, and Kay Shaben and her husband at the Northwest Detention Center, shouting hope and solidarity to the people detained inside: “You are not alone!”  One of Kay’s ministries is showing up frequently at the Detention Center, offering love, compassion, and comfort to visiting families.  While I witnessed Kay lovingly offer a homemade quilt to a 5-year old boy and his family, Angie and her nephew wandered away where they encountered a family coming away from visiting a detained family member.  According to Angie, one woman fell into the arms of her nephew who had opened his arms spontaneously to offer an embrace. A moment of connection, a moment of compassion. You are not alone.

What is it that moves you/us to a place of feeling deep empathy with and for people caught in suffering? The kind of compassion & empathy that helps us recognize how deeply connected we are?

— Jim Wallis in his book “The Soul of Politics” writes:  

At times I think the truest image of God today is a black inner-city grandmother in the US or a mother of the disappeared in Argentina or the  women who wake up early to make tortillas in refugee camps. They all weep for their children, and in their compassionate tears arises the political action that changes the world. The mothers show us that it is the experience of touching the pain of others that is the key to change.

In the past 5 years, I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to listen to and learn from 3 women who are helping to shape the conversation and change the culture using the root of all religions: compassion. There are countless others, but let me introduce you to Researcher/Storyteller, Dr. Brene Brown, Physician Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, and Religious Historian Dr. Karen Armstrong.

Brene Brown – defines Sprituality as recognizing that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us. And that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing this kind of spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.  She also asserts, that we cannot practice compassion with others if we can’t treat ourselves Kindly with compassion.  That aspect of Loving neighbor AS oneself.

She uses a cartoon to describe the difference between empathy & sympathy. While Empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection.  Empathy is a vulnerable choice because we have to connect with the emotion of another. One of the things humans do in the face of suffering is to try to make things better by offering sympathy, which attempts to put a silver-lining around the suffering.  Someone tells you something awful, and your response is “At least…” fill in the blank.  Brene says, If I share something that’s difficult for me, I’d rather you say:  I don’t even know what to say right now.  I’m just so glad you told me. Rarely does a verbal response make something better. What makes some thing better is connection. That occurs when someone listens with compassion and receives our story.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen says it this way

I suspect that the most powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. When people share their story, there’s no need to do anything but receive them. Caring about their story is even more important than understanding it. Listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing. It is often through the quality of our listening and not the wisdom of our words that we are able to effect the most profound changes in people. When we listen, we offer with our attention an opportunity for wholeness. Our listening creates sanctuary for the homeless parts within the other person. That which has been denied, unloved, devalued by themselves and others. That which is hidden.

Ten years ago, historian Dr. Karen Armstrong offered a TED talk on compassion.  Every year  TED – Technology, Entertainment, & Design – gives an award to people making a difference in the world. In 2008, Armstrong won the TED Prize for her wish in creating a Charter for Compassion. Some of you might remember “The Seeds of Compassion” held in Seattle in 2008 inspired by the Charter for Compassion. Anchored by the deep wisdom of the Dalai Lama, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and other luminaries, this community-focused event celebrated and explored the relationships, programs, and tools that nurture and empower children, families, and communities to be compassionate members of society. A year later, with input from 6 different faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism – in 100 countries, thousands of people contributed to the process and the Charter was unveiled in November 2009. Since then, the Charter has inspired community-based acts of compassion all over the world.

The Charter for Compassion covenant: 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. Compassion impels us to work to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honor the sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is necessary in both public & private life to refrain 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 each person to restore compassion to the center of morality & religion ~to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate  ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity

~to cultivate empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We 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, ideological & 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 indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

After the launching of the charter Armstrong followed up with a book called 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life. She was convinced that humanity is suffering from an addiction to egotism. So she created her own 12 step program to help us fight that addiction, and how to learn to cultivate compassion. Even though compassion is at the heart of every faith tradition, religion has been used as a tool to judge and conquer other human beings more often than it has been used to cultivate compassion.  Perhaps religions emphasize compassion is precisely because it doesn’t come naturally.

Armstrong’s research on the most ancient part of our brains is powerful.  Our reptilian brain has natural instincts for: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and reproduction; competition and survival.  Her view is that we can become addicted to feelings of dislike & hate. Our ancient reptilian brain can be triggered to dislike or hate those who seem to threaten us, our family or our tribe.

Armstrong points out that we can easily become dependent upon prejudices.  We can project our anger to the other as an ethnic group, a religion, a political party, or a whole country. “When we utter these uncompassionate, dismissive, or unkind or unjust remarks about one another, we often get a kind of buzz, rather like the first drink of the evening—a sort of glow.” Armstrong makes a strong case that we have become addicted to the process of uncompassionate, dismissive, unkind and downright hateful behavior.

Addiction to behaviors like being uncompassionate and hateful can poison from within just like chemical addiction. It may be almost as difficult to give up such behavior as giving up drugs. It can turn one race, ethnic group or religion against another. It can turn siblings or other family members against one another. Even sports fans have turned from good natured competition to being verbally threatening or physically violent. Political parties no longer seem willing or able to work together to make compromises for the common good. How long can such a “winner take all” mentality last?

Armstrong also insists that we have a natural and indwelling tendency toward altruism and compassion. It just takes work to override the first in order to live out of the second. We must actively and intentionally nourish our compassionate nature and resist our tendency to judgment, competition and self-interest. One balm is to “…wean ourselves away from this addiction by integrating habits of compassion into our daily practice.”

UU Rev. Bill Schulz: “What the world aches for is not louder voices, but kinder hearts.”  Most of us have mastered the art of loud voices. AND Sometimes for good & important causes. But developing a kind heart, or cultivating a heart of compassion, may be the most important  task in our spiritual lives. Compassion grows out of our sense of connection to others. If we are able to cultivate compassion, we create deeper and more meaningful communities.

Compassion is the foundation of the Golden Rule – and some form of that rule is found in every major religion of the world. We are told to want for others what we want for ourselves. And just as we ourselves don’t want to suffer, so too we shouldn’t want anyone else to suffer. Compassion allows us to feel the connection between us in a way that softens and opens our hearts. Religious historian Karen Armstrong reminds us that it’s a difficult, life-long spiritual journey and practice.

Compassion is the courage to enter into another’s suffering for the sake of their blessing. It is not always problem solving. It is presence, out of which we may take action to bring about healing or justice. Jesus went to Bethany not just to fix Lazarus, but to enter into the sisters’ grief, the grief of all mortals that even Jesus cannot spare us from.  It is only from the place of weeping with those who weep that we can enact healing for those who suffer and justice for those who are oppressed. What stands between us and the eradication of poverty & injustice is not power, resources or adequate economic theories, but how we insulate ourselves: we are afraid of feeling their loneliness or hunger, touching their hopelessness, sharing their pain.

Learning to care about love more than comfort and security.  It is practice, by which we enter into the suffering of the world for the sake of its healing. In so doing we enter into the heart of God, whose very nature is self-giving love for the sake of her beloved Creation. In love, weep with those who weep and stand with those who are oppressed, in the spirit of the One who weeps with us in love, the One who calls us out of our fear into new life, who raises us up, unbinds us and sets us free.

Dalai Lama  “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
One of God’s central qualities is compassion, a word in Hebrew is related to the word for “womb.”
Jesus disclosed that God is compassionate. “Be compassionate, as God is compassionate.”
We get better at compassion when we practice.