Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Compassionate life

 PCC ADVENT BOOK STUDY

TWELVE STEPS TO A COMPASSIONATE LIFE – by Karen Armstrong

As a part of our observance of the International Day of Peace, we presented those attending with a copy of a book by Karen Armstrong, “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.”  Many from the church family already owned the book… which seemed to suggest that there might be a group of folks interested in exploring this subject matter more fully. To that end, we are offering an online resource for interested parties exploring thoughts and reactions to the book.

 Our “study” will run through Advent, with postings from our little group of presenters  reflecting on each chapter on the book, posted every other day.

 You will find these postings on our website at  www.protestantcommunitychurch.org . You will also be able to participate in our discussion group by joining our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/509309815761043/ .  We hope you will join us!

 Below is a sample:

 DAY 1 – 12/2/2014 –  The Reverend Steve Winkler

 I am intrigued by a couple of insights Karen Armstrong has brought to the writing of this book:

 1.    All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality… Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  The universality of this teaching principle suggests that compassion is inseparable from humanity; “instead of being motivated by self-interest, a truly human person was consistently oriented toward other.”

        “We humans are more radically dependent on love than any other species.  Our brains have evolved to be caring and to need care—to such as extent that they are impaired if this nurture is lacking.”

 Taken together, these suggest that we are created to live in community, a community created and nurtured by a willingness to live compassionately.  While this statement may not seem radical, it flies in the face of so much that we, a “ruggedly independent” people accept as truth.

Years ago I taught a college class “On Death and Dying,”  One of my most vivid recollections is the time the class was divided into groups of five or six.  Each group was to function as the ethics committee for a hospital, entrusted.  The scenario:

 A twenty-seven-year-old mother of a seven-month-old child is brought to the hospital by her husband.  She has lost a large volume of blood from a ruptured ulcer.  Both husband and wife are Jehovah’s Witnesses, accepting the teaching prohibited blood transfusions.  Both have expressed their resistance to any such intervention.

The ethics committee is consulted.  A choice to transfuse is against the will expressed by both husband and wife.  The medical opinion is simple: Without transfusion, the mother would die.  The ethics committees were asked to make their decisions, realizing that time is of the essence.

 After deliberations, each group was asked to share their decision.  Each group unanimously decided to withhold the transfusion.

 I then shared the information that this was an actual case.  In this specific instance, the hospital sought court permission to administer blood over the objections of patient and spouse.  The petition was denied by the District Court.  However a single judge of the Appellate Court authorized the procedure.  The decision was based, at least in part, on the fact that the patient was the mother of an infant child who, through her otherwise avoidable death, she would be abandoning.  The judge argued that the patient had a responsibility to the community to care for her infant and, thus, the people had an interest in preserving her life.

 The students in my class were outraged.  The rights of the individual are sacrosanct!

 But what about the community?

Chapter 1:
Learn about Compassion Reflections by Reverend Steve Winkler

“Compassion requires us to open our hearts and minds to all others.” The first step to a compassionate life is taken when we make the effort to learn about and with others. The author, Karen Armstrong, takes us on a short journey through the teachings of the world’s great religions, sharing insights each teaches regarding the centrality of compassion to the life of faith. Each, in remarkably similar ways, instructs followers to embrace the spirit of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This short journey in the s study of comparative religions is both fascinating and thought provoking. In this journey Armstrong provides some advice regarding the reading of scripture. When discussing Islam, we encounter a truth for us all: “Do not approach the Qur’an in haste, ere it has been revealed to thee in full.” On the basis of this text Muslims have traditionally been warned against a ‘hasty’ approach, which draws hurried conclusions from isolated verses taken out of context. They should, rather, allow the whole scripture to take root in their minds before they attempt to interpret the details. Old favorite, Fred Craddock shares much the same perspective when he reflects on God’s choice of Joseph to stand alongside Mary to rear the young Jesus. Craddock imagines that Joseph, a devout man, troubled by the news of Mary’s pregnancy, might have sought out the advice of religious leaders. What should he do? “Just do what the Bible says. You can’t go wrong if you do what the Bible says… She is to be taken out and stoned to death in front of the people.” That is what the Bible says… I run into so many people who carry around a forty-three-pound Bible and say, “Just do what the Book says.” Joseph is a good man… He loves his Bible and he knows his Bible and bless his heart for it. But he reads his Bible through a certain kind of lens, the lens of the character and nature of a God who is loving and kind. Therefore he says, “I will not harm her, abuse her, expose her, shame her, ridicule her, or demean her value, her dignity, or her worth. I will protect her.” Where does it say that, Joseph? In your Bible? I’ll tell you where it says that. It says that in the very nature and character of God… What is right is to read the Scripture and to read the human condition in the light of the love and grace and kindness of God. As long as there is one in every community, it will be Christmas. The question, of course, is whether or not you will be that person.

Chapter 2 -12/4/14-

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life Look at Your Own World by Reverend Steve Winkler

Year after year, I hear of more families changing their Christmas traditions, moving away from an orgy of gift giving toward choices reflecting caring toward others outside the immediate family circle. As I left the office today, I met a woman who has approached the church, year after year, asking for a family to “adopt” for Christmas… Last Sunday the church family began taking names from the giving tree, people from the area who live in poverty or face other difficult situations… examples of efforts to expand our circles of compassion. Karen Armstrong refers to the old adage: charity begins at home. We learn from those closest to us, family members who demonstrate acts of compassion. I believe we learn best when acts are accompanied by a testimony telling the story behind caring behaviors. I grew up in a little town in northwestern Illinois that was something of a railroad hub. Both my father and his father worked on the railroad in the train yards that were a couple blocks from our home. Regularly we would have a “king of the road”at our door step asking for some food. There was never a time anyone was turned away. While Mom put together a bag with a sandwich and an apple, I would hear the story from her youth…a child of the Depression…the oldest of nine siblings… often without enough food for everyone… neighbors helping neighbors… those with, helping those without. She was simply paying it forward, and seemingly could not imagine doing otherwise. And I was learning a little bit about living a compassionate life. May we teach our children and their children well…

Chapter 3 –  Compassion for Yourself Reflections by Steve Winkler

We are in the midst of the Advent season. Our Gospel reading last week, taken from Mark, quotes Jesus considering the day of the Lord: “Keep awake.” I was taken by Karen Armstrong’s account of the Buddha’s response to the question, “Are you a god?” The response: “Remember me as one who is awake.” From this chapter exploring mindfulness as the way to demonstrate compassion for oneself, I am taken by the notion that as we deal with our fears and any sense of unworthiness, we are given the freedom to be present in the moment. We have the courage to focus on another. Forty years ago Heather introduced me to a remarkable couple, friends of her parents who had literally been a part of her whole life. I remember meeting them in a casual open-house setting, a gathering of folks, none of whom I had ever met. I was not naturally comfortable in such settings. (I have my own collection of fears, etc.! I was not looking to the evening.) Our hostess found me in standing in the corner. We found a window seat, and she expressed how happy she was to meet me. She asked about the trials of moving into a new town. She expressed a genuine interest in the life of the church. Soon her husband, our host, joined the conversation. Hours later, as Heather and I were driving home, I marveled at the hospitality I had been shown. I had received a precious gift… their willingness to be present with me. They were awake, and their example awakened a desire in me to learn to do the same for others. Often times my words to wedding couples include the following: It is as you are loved that you are given the courage to grow; it is as you love that you become the person you are meant to be. God’s love affirms your worth and mine. Love casts out fear. Awake! The dawn has come!

Advent Book Study
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, by Karen Armstrong
Chapter 4 – Empathy
Reflections by Rusty Williams

Karen Armstrong describes the fourth step of living a compassionate life as one of empathy. In its simplest form, empathy is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Ms. Armstrong suggests that reason, if not tempered by compassion and empathy, can lead us into a moral void. But according to Aristotle, our rational powers enable us to stand back from our primal brain (me-first thinking) and appreciate the plight of someone else.

The season of Advent, a time of waiting and anticipating, is upon us. We have an opportunity during this time of year to reaffirm our calling to be there for one another. I remember all those who have been there for me; I appreciate all of it, every person, every act, every prayer offered. What I struggle with, however, is when someone attempts to compare their pain to my pain. And it’s not that a person tries to say their pain is worse than mine; just the opposite is what happens: people think they have no right to complain to me about their pain because, for whatever reason, they feel their pain is much less than what I’m feeling. My reply is this: pain is pain.

Regardless of its origin, when a person experiences pain (whether physical or emotional), their pain is real. And it’s not fair to compare its intensity to what someone else is feeling. When we do that, we enter into a trap of comparing ourselves to another. “How can I feel bad about myself when you have it a lot worse than me?” There is a difference between empathy and feeling bad for someone. Feeling bad for someone tends to place us, in our own mind, a notch higher than them because we’re glad we don’t have it as bad as they do. But empathy allows us to take the hand of a hurting soul and walk with them in their journey.

Empathy is a gift for both the giver and receiver. When we see into the heart of another, we see a glimpse of their pain and suffering. We begin to realize our own desire to wish them healing, to see them free of pain and to wish them joy. And when they experience joy, we’re right there with them.

It’s then that we take their hand and begin to feel what they feel, we stop judging and we begin loving. May we all anticipate this gift in our lives and in the lives of those around us … all year long.

Advent Book Study
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, by Karen Armstrong
Chapter 5 – Mindfulness
Reflections by Rusty Williams

“Scientists know a great deal about the human brain, but still have a lot to learn about the human mind.”

This quote was shared by my seminary director as a way of getting us to think about the way our minds work. Of all the organs in our bodies, our brains are the most unique. Take a look at our hearts, each one of our hearts performs the same tasks and the end result is the same: blood is recirculated and pumped throughout our bodies. Nothing too unique about that organ.

But take a look at our brains where information is taken in and processed. You’d think that since our brains are all made up from the same stuff (and in the same way) the end results for each one of us would be identical. If that’s the case, why do some of us see a work of art as a thing of beauty and others, seeing the same exact piece of art, look at it and think it’s ugly? The simple answer: our minds perceive the same information differently – and uniquely.

In this fifth step of “Living a Compassionate Life,” Karen Armstrong describes mindfulness as a form of meditation designed to give us more control over our minds, helping us channel our negative emotions more creatively. Our primitive emotions, what Ms. Armstrong calls the “Four F’s” (feeding, fighting, fleeing, and ‘reproduction’) aren’t just responsible for positive things; they’re also triggers for anger, hostility, greed, lust, and fear.

When we become aware of how easily (and carelessly) we inflict pain on others by our impatience to seemingly minor inconveniences, we begin to see just how dangerous our primal emotions can be. It’s only when we step outside of our primal brain and practice mindfulness that we begin to see that’s not who we really are. And that leads to growth.

“No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” ~ Aesop’s Fables

Scientific research has shown that when someone receives an act of kindness, such as someone holding a door for them, a boost of the pleasure hormone Serotonin is delivered to their system. This same research showed the person holding the door had a Serotonin increase as well. No surprise to either of these findings, right? But the research also showed that people witnessing the act of kindness had a boost of Serotonin that was almost equal to the other two people. Amazing, isn’t it? Just witnessing an act of kindness triggers our brains – our minds – to secrete a chemical responsible for pleasure and happiness.

As we grow in mindfulness, we’re able to look inward and become aware of who we were meant to become. And in doing so, we see the world around us differently. It’s like a door that’s waiting to be opened…

Advent Book Study
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, by Karen Armstrong
Chapter 6 – Action
Reflections by Rusty Williams

Ms. Armstrong dovetails this step with Step 5, Mindfulness. She uses Wordsworth’s quote, “There are in our existence spots of time […] our minds are nourished and invisibly repaired,” to ask the reader to recall a time when there were “spots of time” in their life when someone went out of their way to help them. This step, Action, is simply applying the insights learned in Step 5 to lighten the lives of those around us with acts of friendship.

In order for this step to seem not-so-overwhelming, it’s important to start out with small baby steps; after all, it might not feel natural at first. Small steps become habits, and then habits become a way of life. I remember how difficult it was to learn so many important things when I started my career in law enforcement. One of the things my field training officer had me do was read out the license plate of each car traveling in the opposite direction. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to this without getting sick – I became so dizzy that I had him pull off the road more than once!

It was only after he allowed me to read every tenth car’s plate that it became manageable. And then every fifth car, then every other car; until finally I was able to recite each plate coming our way. And it was at that moment, when I thought I had it down pat, that he added something else: I had to describe the make and model of the car in addition to its license plate. We started slow again – every tenth car that went by. But soon I was rattling off make, model, AND plate of every car. I thought I was something special… Right up until he asked me to describe the driver of each car. Once I became proficient at that, he added one more test: the color (year of expiration) and number of the inspection sticker on the windshield of each car. That is A LOT of information to gather – license plate, make, model, driver description, and inspection sticker number – when you’re travelling at 40 miles per hour and the car you’re describing is traveling at that same speed in the opposite direction.

The point is when we try something new it can seem overwhelming if we don’t start out slow. All the knowledge in the world isn’t going to do us (or those around us) much good if we don’t put it to good use. Me knowing all the traffic laws wouldn’t amount to a single ticket if I wasn’t able to put them into practice. That’s why Ms. Armstrong suggests we create these “spots of time” until they become habitual, until we can put them into practice on a regular basis. And it’s these spots in time that can mean the world to those in our lives; simple moments that we might not think much of, but others will remember forever.

Now that I’ve been retired for more than five years, I don’t have the ability (or the eyesight) to read off every license plate. In fact, if I were to try, I’d probably get dizzy again. But you and me, we can start off slow towards a lifelong habit of acting with kindness and compassion.

I doubt we’ll get dizzy, or have our insurance rates go up, if we get caught giving it a try.

Advent Book Study
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, by Karen Armstrong
Chapter 7 – How Little We Know
Reflections by Rusty Williams

Karen Armstrong wonders [out loud] how many times we’ve imposed our own experiences and beliefs on acquaintance and events, making hurtful, inaccurate, and dismissive snap judgments about persons or whole cultures. Only to find out that when questioned closely, our actual knowledge of the topic is quite limited.

It might be an understatement to say our society is very opinionated; everyone knows something about something, and everyone wants to be heard. I’m reminded of a line from the Prayer of St. Francis: “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek … to be understood as to understand.”

The unknown can be an adventurous journey, one filled with hope and faith. The mystery of God is just that, a mystery. Were we ever meant to know everything about God? Has anyone ever stated that our goal is to completely understand our Creator? If we can answer no to these questions, why shouldn’t we see that we don’t have to know everything about the world around us? Sure, the pursuit of knowledge is exhilarating, but unknowing remains part of the human condition (as quoted by Ms. Armstrong).

What would our lives look like if we marveled at the unknown? How would our days be different if we were okay not knowing everything? Am I the only one who ruined Christmas for himself by sneaking into his parent’s bedroom, and after finding the presents they bought (not the ones Santa was bringing on Christmas morning), unwrapped them to see what he was getting?

Yep, you can imagine the disappointment in my heart when, on Christmas morning, I had to “act” surprised (and grateful) when I unwrapped the presents my brother and I found earlier that week. There I was on Christmas morning, ripping the paper off of gifts, presents I shook in the air as if to guess what they contained. And with each exposed toy, I yelled out, “Wow, thank you!” But inside, I was disappointed; there was no surprise. I ruined the anticipation of discovery on that Christmas morning.

Maybe by appreciating the limits of our knowledge we can see things a little differently. Perhaps that might even lead to humility and a deeper understanding of ourselves. Even Einstein experienced ‘mystical wonder’ when he contemplated the universe. And I don’t know about you, but I ain’t no Einstein…

Some possible goals of this step could be to recognize and appreciate the unknown and the unknowable; to become aware of overconfident assertions of certainty in ourselves (and others), and to understand that there is a divine mystery in each and every person we meet.

When we seek to understand others (as in the Prayer of St. Francis) more than we try to figure them out, we can’t help but be changed by the wonder of possibilities. It’s like having faith on Christmas morning that whatever is in that package – – – it’s going to contain all the love of the giver in it.

Advent Book Study
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, by Karen Armstrong
Reflections by Dr. Virginia Leopold
Chapter 8- How Should We Speak to One Another?

Armstrong talks about the aggressive forms of dialogue we inherited from the ancient Greeks. But Socrates’ dialogue was a more spiritual type of exercise where psychological changes took place in a person and each understood his or her own ignorance. Plato said that dialogue as a communal meditation was hard work requiring a lot of time and trouble.

I like Buddha’s belief that knowledge is a a process of self-discovery, and that insight comes not from accepting the opinions of others, but in finding the truth within yourself. How many of you have ever engaged in debate or dialogue that is truly open-minded and compassionate? Too often our egos cause these exchanges to be competitive, angry, or pushy without any attempt to hear and understand the other.

Once in my life I was fortunate enough to be part of an amazing dialogue. At a weekend conference of a women’s committee of the Consultation of Church Union (COCU) we met to plan a women’s retreat. There were about 16 of us there, plus the male head of the organization at the time who sat in as an observer. For over two hours non-stop ideas, opinions, suggestions and requests flew around the table. Seemingly chaos reigned. At the end of the time, the moderator said- “Here’s what I heard”- and in a very short period of time, the entire format of the whole retreat feel into place and was unanimously agreed upon. Everyone was heard, all had input, and the end result was an amalgam of everyone’s ideas. We all sat back, satisfied, and smiled. The male observer scratched his head and said- “How did you do that? I was right here and I have no idea how all that was accomplished.”

Oh that all discourses could be conducted so that all feel heard. It’s certainly a goal for which to aim.

Advent Book Study
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, by Karen Armstrong
Reflections by Dr. Virginia Leopold
Chapter 9- Concern for Everybody How should one live?
Live welcoming to all. — Mechtild of Magdeburg

Too often our compassion is confined to our own group- our family, our friends, our community, our own church- and to broaden it, our own religion, class, race, nation. Armstrong asserts that in our global world “we have a duty to get to know one another, and to cultivate a concern and responsibility for all our neighbors in the global village”. We can no longer draw a line between “them” and “us”. Armstrong writes, “Letting go of our “tribal” egotism can become a spiritual process…” It seems to me that what we are really talking about is the practice known as Hospitality.

We are practicing hospitality when we welcome guests — including strangers and enemies — into our lives with graciousness. An open attitude reveals certain things about us: we are well-disposed toward others, we focus on the positive, and we believe the universe is basically a friendly place. Sometimes hospitality requires that we cross boundaries and dismantle some of the barriers erected in our society to keep “the other” out. Sometimes it means entertaining ideas that might be alien to us. To be hospitable, we need to accept pluralism as a natural condition in the world. Celebrate the diversity of the Creation. One particularly valuable spin-off of hospitality is inter-religious dialogue. Spirit speaks in many languages, and this spiritual practice helps us receive these multiple messages.

Hospitality and hostility are both derived from the same root word but they couldn’t be more different. Whereas hospitality is about welcoming all, hostility thrives on insider/outsider conflicts. In recent years, we have seen hostility raised to new levels due to terrorism and the war against it, which has increased the perception that outsiders are potential enemies out to destroy us. To counter this trend, we are challenged to adapt and hone the spiritual practice of hospitality. It involves being willing to take risks to welcome individuals as well as the broader goal of staying open to the insights of cultures other than our own. On the spiritual journey, the first step is learning about and being respectful of the insights of the world’s religions.

As one write put in, “Hospitality calls on us to look at each individual as a fellow human being. It requires three important factors: recognition, respect, and response. Rather than first focusing on human differences and eccentricities, we are called on to give a charitable judgment and allow a mutual respect to form.” Joan Chittister writes, “Hospitality is not kindness. It is openness to the unknown, trust of what frightens us, the expenditure of self on the unfamiliar, the merging of unlikes. Hospitality binds the world together.” “One Song,” a poem by Rumi translated by Coleman Barks on the theme of hospitality.

All religions,
all this singing
One Song.
The differences are just
Illusion and vanity.
The Sun’s light looks
A little different on this wall than
It does on that wall,
And a lot different on this other one,
But it’s still one light.
We have borrowed these clothes,
These time and place personalities
From a light,
And when we praise,
We’re pouring them back in.

 

 

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PCC News Updates

Sunday, December 14th
Third Sunday in Advent
8:00 a:  Morning Worship – Memorial Hall
8:50 a:  Children’s Choir
9:00 a: Morning Worship – Sanctuary
9:00 a:  Sunday School Worship – Sanctuary
9:15 a:  Sunday School Classes – Todd Building
10:00 a:  Fellowship Time – Todd Building
10:30 a:  Morning Worship – Sanctuary
2:00 p:  Advent Happening – 2nd Todd
5:00 p: Advent Dinner – Todd Building
6:30 p:  Rite 13 & J2A Classes – Todd Building

 Monday, December 15th
7:00 p:  Board Meeting – Library
8:00 p: AA Meeting – Memorial Hall
8:00 p: Alanon – 2nd Todd

Tuesday – December 16th
7:00 p:  Carillon Choir – Choir Room

Wednesday – December 17th
11:00 a:  Staff  Meeting – Office
7:00 p: Missions Meeting – Library

Thursday –December 18th
9:00 a:  Chimes Assembly – Library
10:00 a:  Bible Study – Library
7:00 p:  Outreach Meeting – Library
7:30 p:  Cathedral Choir – Choir Room
7:45 p: AA Meeting – Memorial Hall

Friday – December 19th
3:30 p:  Target Tag

Saturday – December 20th
8:30 a:  AA Meeting – Memorial Hall
10:30 a:  AA Meeting – Memorial Hall
8:30 p:  Christmas Light Bus Tour

Sunday, December 21st
Fourth Sunday in Advent

8:00 a:  Morning Worship – Memorial Hall
8:50 a:  Children’s Choir
9:00 a: Morning Worship – Sanctuary
9:00 a:  Sunday School Worship – Sanctuary
9:15 a:  Sunday School Classes – Todd Building
10:00 a:  Fellowship Time – Todd Building
10:30 a:  Morning Worship – Sanctuary
10:30 a:  Pastoral Succession Team Meeting – 2nd Todd
6:30 p:  Rite 13 & J2A Classes – Todd Building

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