To download and listen to audio of the two-part message, please click here. To read the messages, please see below.
Part I of the two part message: By Tom Lottman
As I look out today on the two congregations of Northern Hills UU Fellowship and The Gathering, I see folks who I know well and for a long time, and folks I barely know at all. However, having had the opportunity to watch both congregations interact with their members and with each other, I am confident that each congregation is truly a beloved community. The term, beloved community was first coined early in the 20th century by the Philosopher/Theologian Josiah Royce, but was most popularized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a community of good will, a community infused with compassion for all.
I am very grateful to have the opportunity to “tag team” with Rev. Doug in preparing and presenting today’s message. It was a gift to spend time with Doug talking about these issues and, as an aside, it underscored my personal profound sense of hope and optimism for the extraordinary spiritual community that can emerge from the merger of our two congregations, our two beloved communities. Ours is a two-fold message today: first, a look at how compassion emerges within each of us and within our beloved communities, and secondly, Rev. Doug will speak to why compassionate outreach is so important for a church community.
As a couple of you know, I have a contract to write a book on what developmental science has to say about the emergence of character strengths in young children. So I have done a lot of research and thinking about how empathy and compassion develop not just in children, but in adults as well. And I want to condense this work into two essential ideas: 1) What in beloved communities fosters compassion?; and 2) As a result, what happens inside us that draws us to compassionate caring and social justice?
For me, beloved communities, infused with compassion, develop when the group meets four essential needs of its members: the needs for belonging, becoming, believing and “beloving”. And for each of these core needs, its fulfillment engages our heads, our hearts, and our hands. It changes how we think, how we feel and how we act.
Let’s take belonging. Families and church communities are good at this. I suspect that if we each rated our congregations for how well they meet belonging, we’d probably score a ten. It’s clear that a sense of belonging is one of the great benefits we gain from our membership at NHF or The Gathering. The feeling of connection to others, acceptance by others, and genuinely being valued by others meets a fundamental human need that transcends almost all others. Take a moment and look around you. Truly bring your awareness to the connections you have with so many of the people in these seats. It may not be a deep relationship with each person, but perhaps at least a sense of the familiar, a sense of Yeah, this person is a fixture here, they belong here. Undoubtedly we have belonging in abundance in our congregations. However, there’s a reason why belonging isn’t enough to generate and sustain compassion. Belonging feels good, feels comfortable, but it can become too comfortable. You see, belonging implies not only rules for inclusion but also rules for exclusion. Not only for “who belongs here” but also for “who doesn’t belong here.” We can be seduced into wrapping ourselves in the warm blanket of belonging and be content to forgo the need to change, the need to grow. We get comfortably “stuck” in where we are and with who we are. While belonging begets caring, by itself it does not sustain caring.
A true beloved community creates not only the enduring comfort of “belonging to” something, but also the periodic discomfort of “be longing” for something. It challenges us to grow. The “longing for” something is at the cusp of belonging and becoming. Whether it’s a family or church, a beloved community nurtures our drive to become, to be more than who we were, to connect to a broader world from that which we’ve come. The other day when I was leaving for work, Ann looked at me and motioned to me to come over. She reached to brush away what she thought was a crumb on my sweater that turned out to be a hole. It didn’t help that some extra pounds around my middle stretched the sweater and exaggerated the hole. I said that I really didn’t mind the hole and that I liked the sweater even though it no longer fit right. Without saying a word, she gave me that look that said, “Sometimes a sweater like everything we try to hold on to wears out or we outgrow it. It’s time to consider getting a new sweater.” So too, there are ideas that wear out or that we outgrow and we need the people who love us to encourage us to try on new ideas and beliefs. So let this beloved community support you in examining old ideas for holes, for seeing if old beliefs still fit.
Like the secure attachment of a toddler to a parent gives the child the courage to explore and broaden her world, so to, the attachment to a beloved community gives us the confidence to broaden our view of what it means to be human, to make us curious to discover and celebrate the diversity of people with whom we share a neighborhood, a country, a world. Compassion begets more compassion.
Let’s take a look at believing. I don’t mean belief in a religious sense, but I do mean it in a sense of the profound. A beloved community asks us to truly appreciate the mystery and also the good inherent in humanity. A book club engages the head. A social club engages the heart. And a work team engages the hand. A beloved spiritual community engages the head, the heart and hands around issues of ultimate concern. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to lead a full life? What does it mean to help others lead a full life? A beloved spiritual community asks us to confront our beliefs about ourselves, other people and the world in general. What do we think, feel, say and do when we reflect on the natural disaster in Nepal and the man-made tragedy in Baltimore? Willingness to deeply consider our beliefs about what it means to be human paves the way to compassion.
And finally “Be-loving” begins at home. You’ve probably heard about those contests where you win the chance to race up and down supermarket aisles for three minutes to put as much as you can grab into your shopping cart. Well, this message is kind of like zooming up and down the aisles of compassion with the hope that you will grab something you want along the way. And if I can suggest just one “in the cart” message today it is that authentic compassion for others requires true compassion for myself. So what does it mean to have self-compassion? The starting point of Buddhist teaching is that suffering is inevitable, or as the more simplified non-Buddhist bumper sticker proclaims, “Excrement Happens”. Perhaps you have seen that TV commercial by an insurance company that have people first list the good things that happened to them last year on blue cards and the bad thing on yellow cards. Then they asked them to post what they think would happen in the future. The past was an even mixture of good and bad while the future expectations were predominately good. So, even the TV commercial confirms the truism of the bumper sticker.
The core teaching of the Buddha, confirmed by modern science is that it is not the suffering or lack of suffering that makes us sad or happy, but rather what we tell ourselves about our inevitable suffering. If we confront our suffering with self-blame or with deep resentment, if that is the king of conversation we have with ourselves about our suffering, anxiety and depression follows. If on the other hand, we are gentle with ourselves, if we truly accept all parts of us; the good, the bad and the ugly, we can move past our suffering to greater grow and greater love.
Dr. Kristin Neff is one of the leading thinkers about self-compassion. She suggests that self-compassion consists of three components: Self-kindness: being gentle and understanding with yourself when you experience suffering; Common humanity: realizing that you’re not alone in your struggles. When we are struggling we feel isolated. We think we’re the only ones that screwed up, or have been rejected. The key message of self-compassion is the realization that these very struggles are a shared experience of what it means to be human; Mindfulness: Observing life as it is without being judgmental of or discounting our feelings and experiences.
So when we come together in this shared place, when we come together as a beloved community, let’s come with an intention to let go, let in, let be. Let’s let go of our old worn out or “holey” ideas, let in a desire to know and appreciate the perspectives of others, and let be every aspect of ourselves, accepting ourselves in our shared struggles. That’s the way to compassion. The Dalai Lama simply said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; if you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Now Doug will talk about the importance of compassion and the practice of social justice work in a church community.
Part II of the two part message, by Rev. Doug Slagle, (c) All Rights Reserved
I love what Tom just shared with us. I hope you might read or listen to his message again online – especially how it applies to each of us as individuals.
I want to focus my part of the message on us as one body – why compassion is so essential for our collective whole – as either Northern Hills, the Gathering, or, hopefully, as a newly merged church.
Myra Oliver is a young Cincinnati woman who found herself homeless and living on the streets at the age of seventeen – kicked out of her home by her mom. Two years later, she was still living on the streets – but she had recently given birth to a baby girl. Somehow, Myra was able to keep her child and still be homeless. She came to the attention of Lighthouse Youth Services who then began a months long process to win Myra’s trust so they could get her off the streets.
Lighthouse found no homeless shelter able to house a mother and infant together but, fortunately, case workers did find temporary foster care for the baby. This was so Myra could enter the Lighthouse Sheakley Center – a homeless shelter for young adults. The Gathering has supported Sheakley over the past five years by buying, preparing and serving lunches to its young adults, by assembling thousands of personal hygiene kits for them, and by supporting self-sufficiency classes that get homeless youth into homes and jobs.
Myra applied herself at Sheakley by working within its many programs – twice a day self-sufficiency classes, job training, resume writing and parenting courses. After a time spent at Sheakley, Myra was transitioned into an apartment last September where she was reunited with her daughter. She found child care for her baby and a job. She now is successfully raising her daughter, working and applying to community college.
Myra’s is just one story among many from the Sheakley homeless shelter. From a heroin addicted, homeless prostitute who was able to conquer addiction, graduate from college and work as a social worker, to an African-American young man who recently passed the Cincinnati Police exam and entered their training academy – many homeless young adults have been helped by the Lighthouse Sheakley Center and by the Gathering.
The Gathering has also supported, with money and hands on work, Faces without Places, an organization that provides assistance to elementary age homeless children. They run a free camp for a hundred homeless kids every summer in addition to year-round help in the form of tutoring, uniforms, school supplies, winter coats and food. One mom of six young children recently related the impact Faces has had on her family. She had dropped out of school after the eighth grade but now, even though her family lives in a shelter, her children are receiving the kind of educational support she never had. Those who have helped her family, she says, have saved seven lives.
Six years ago, after I started as Pastor at the Gathering, the church began an intensive effort to move beyond the four walls of its building to directly serve needs in our the community. The Gathering, like Northern Hills, provides financial assistance to many organizations but the bulk of the Gathering’s assistance to others comes with hands on work by our members to feed, clothe, educate, support, nurture and assist homeless youth.
But the Gathering is doing no more than what is expected of it – or any church. As Tom related four key areas in the development of a beloved community, compassionate hands on service to others is a vital function. Indeed, it is a defining function. From a spiritual perspective, our purpose as individuals is to seek the kind of knowledge and experience that take us beyond ego and self-interest – and into a spiritual realm. And the same is true of churches.
This divine realm is a metaphorical place, a state of mind and being that we reach as we fulfill our purpose for existence – to serve others at least as much as we serve ourselves. While some might look to the heavens for a theological God to serve humanity, I believe we must look instead here on earth. It is we, as people, who have the opportunity to act as little ‘g’ gods and goddesses to build a version of heaven on earth – to heal the brokenhearted, bind up the wounded, feed the hungry and strengthen the weak.
And the existential purpose of churches is to help us achieve these things. Only in community are we, as individuals, exponentially enabled to learn and grow in our abilities to serve, be change agents, and to act as little ‘g’ gods and goddesses. Churches are essentially places of empowerment. They equip us to be human gods to our families, to our fellow members and, most importantly, to those with whom we have nothing in common. In doing so, we move into a spiritual realm beyond mind and body – an interconnected sacred space of unconditional love, understanding and compassion. Churches and spiritual organizations are some of the few institutions that make this happen. They train us in how to humbly love ourselves so that we can then in turn selflessly love and serve others. And it is such selflessness that fundamentally defines who we are and the kind of life legacy we will leave behind.
The many lives the Gathering has touched in its outreach, the many lives Northern Hills has touched, they are symbolically like the pebbles we drop here in a bowl of water. Each life we help to change for the better is a sacred life – a life that then touches other lives for good. One life, one pebble, dropped into the pond of creation sends out ripples of influence far into the future. From a former addict and sex worker, to a homeless young man soon to be a police officer, to the children of a mom who never went to high school, to thousands of hungry children across our community, we impact people and generations we will never know. In doing so, we touch eternity, we touch the divine, we touch the face of God.
As the Unitarian hero Ralph Waldo Emerson once put it, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have life make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” In this regard, Emerson makes Tom’s and my point. An abundant life is not one of happiness as it might superficially be defined – one of indulging sensory pleasures. An abundant life is, instead, a fulfilled life. A life of meaning. A life of peace that is at one with the wider universe precisely because it has been integrated into it. And that integration comes only from serving ALL life – not just one’s own.
We, as a beloved community, must take Emerson’s words to heart. Our community comprises many individuals but it is one body – one force of love and compassion. As we focus that love inward to strengthen our own spirits, it must be reflected back out into our neighborhoods to nourish and strengthen them. That’s why we are here. That’s why we attend on Sundays, volunteer, give and now contemplate a merger. It’s not for me, it’s not for you. We do all of this for our ONE HUMAN FAMILY.
A beloved community is never judgmental. It never imposes expectations or guilt on its members for not serving. Instead, it inspires members. It encourages them by word and example. A beloved community is a transformed place of greater happiness, kindness, productivity and interconnection. This kind of church does not seek bigger buildings, thousands of members or millions of dollars. In every aspect of its being, it looks beyond its walls, it humbly serves a broken world, it quietly but persistently loves the unloved, the outcast, the broken, the helpless. As for me, as for Tom, as for all of us, we will be a community that grows in belonging, becoming, believing and, most importantly, in “beloving”.