Posts Tagged ‘Compassion’

I am quite a fan of TEDtalks – there have been many fabulous talks and enlightening speakers presenting on a wide-range of subjects from surviving a suicide attempt to becoming an activist, with almost every conceivable topic in-between.

Strangely enough religious leaders often do not make the best speakers, regardless of the topic they’re exploring. Pope Francis though, unlike his immediate predecessor, has an engaging, well-grounded and warm personality that brings to life the subjects he passionately cares about.  His delivery is straightforward, as are his public messages; they are not couched in convoluted theological language.  In this respect, I often feel that there is a clear parallel between the incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury and his predecessor.

Anyway, I digress! Francis’ TEDtalk is not delivered from the typical TED stage; instead he talks from behind a desk in the Vatican.  His message is simple – change starts with individuals; hope begins in the individual heart. From that starting point, hope and solidarity with ‘the other’, those who are marginalised and powerless becomes a powerful possibility. In-so-doing he makes the point that there is really no difference between us – we are all loved by God in our uniqueness and imperfection.

That said, Francis reminds us that the powerful….the significant in worldly terms……are especially tasked by God to use their wealth and influence in ways that bind us together rather than pull us apart.

That our world is in a mess, largely because we have ignored the radical message of Christianity and settled for something that is, in many ways radically exclusive and uncaring, is obvious.  Our world is fractious and riddled with war and cruelty in myriad forms.

But Pope Francis provides a timely reminder that each and every one of us, regardless of creed, can harness the power of hope and promote equality, solidarity and tenderness.  His call, in essence a reminder that we all need each other and that none of us exists in isolation.  In that respect he echoes, in his own words, that wonderful Ubuntu saying, ‘I am what I am because of who we all are.’  Hope demands therefore that we should all be ‘team players’, constantly looking at ways to co-operate with each other for the greater good of all.

Never has Pope Francis’ plea, “Let us help each other, all together, to remember that the ‘other’ is not a statistic, or a number,” been more important than it is today.  How we work that ethic out in practise in a complex and perplexing world is another matter.  But then again, we need simply start with ourselves, reflecting on the work that needs done within us and amongst us – the rest will unfold against the universal backdrop of hope and love.

You can make your own mind up by watching the whole presentation here:

This is the text of my New Year sermon, shared today at Cliftonville Moravian Church in Belfast:

Moving into 2017: Recognizing the Value of All Human Life

Last night, and in to the wee small hours, and across the globe, the words of one of Robert Burns’ most famous song – Auld Lang Syne – would have been sung.  Sentiments of togetherness and a looking forward to the future in friendship mean so much to so many at the dawning of a New Year and the leaving behind of a turbulent old one. Auld Lang Syne is a song that reminds us of the values we possess across geographical and religious boundaries.

I love these displays of togetherness; it is so important that we come together whenever we can and wherever we can.

But all of this comes in the midst of global turmoil.  Crucially, as I have been reading and watching the news of late, I have been struck by a number of things.  One in particular: It strikes me that today, and throughout human history, life is often cheap, dispensable and non-consequential.  Now that is a very bold statement, I accept that.  But let us start at our New Testament Reading for today, where we encounter an enraged King Herod, lashing out in his paranoia, ordering the killing of male children under the age of two. What a ghastly and unthinkable thing to do.  Herod’s narcissism was all-pervasive.  As he aged and his behaviour became increasingly erratic and unstable, he clearly had no concept of the intrinsic value of life; the life of others was only important inasmuch as it served his purposes.  He clearly did not grasp the fact that life was precious, a gift from God, as we read in Genesis 1:27: ‘So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’. It was this divine imprint that makes the life of each one of us valuable.

And we think of our experiences today.  The first example: the war in Syria, where we see night after night on our TV screens, or our newsfeeds, young children being pulled lifeless from the rubble of a bombed house…or hospital….or school.  It is unbearable to watch.  But, we hear those words ‘collateral damage’ used by the protagonists in the war, and somehow this is supposed to make the situation less desperate and appalling – these children were not directly targeted. Implicit in these situations, and the explanations that emanate from those involved, is the notion that some lives are worth more than others…..some lives are expendable in the rush for military and political conquest. The echo of Herod can be heard loud and clear amidst the din of the shelling and gunfire.

Then there is another example.  Just yesterday there was news breaking of a market suicide bomb in Iraq that killed dozens of people and injured at least fifty.  The area in Baghdad that had been targeted was packed with shops and the bomb (or bombs) went off during a particularly busy time.  Yes, there was news coverage, but it was quite far down the list, the global response was muted, and the story will most likely have disappeared into the ether today or tomorrow; we’ve almost become conditioned to expect such atrocities in Iraq.

And then there is the situation in Myanmar, or Burma.  Just the other day a group of 11 Nobel peace prize winners wrote to the United Nations pleading for it to ‘end the human crisis of the country’s Rohingya Muslims.  There have been widespread claims of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and somewhere in excess of 30,000 people have been forced to flee the military onslaught.  That’s a huge number of people – women, children, families. And we hardly hear anything at all about it.

From these three examples, we might be tempted to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions.  Is it just because these atrocities are committed so far from home that we here little of them? Or is it because they have little impact on our own lives that the media does not focus in on them as it might?  Or is it because the people affected are different to us in some way or another?  Or even more uncomfortable is the notion that, in the collective subconscious, not all lives are equal?

I read an article, some time ago now, on the ‘Big Think’ website.  It was called ‘The Geography of Empathy and Apathy: Some Countries We Care about More than Others’, and it was written by a man called Frank Jacobs.  He concluded that, from a Western perspective, when there is a tragic event, ‘Those feelings of empathy decrease as the cultural, economic, and geographical distance to the disaster and its victims increases’.  In other words, we care most for those who are most like us, and less for those who are less like us.

Now that really is really difficult reality to reflect on, but as our New Testament reading reminds, us, it is nothing new; our generation is no different in this respect from any others.

But, the challenge comes when we pause to imbibe what Luke wrote in Acts 10:34, ‘Then Peter began to speak: “I now truly understand that God does not show favouritism’. Indeed he does not; and neither should we.  Each life, wherever it is lived, regardless of the circumstances, is as valuable as any other. Imagine how radically different our world would be if we truly took this on board?  It would be revolutionised.

Francis Schaeffer once so perceptively wrote: “Man, made in the image of God, has a purpose – to be in relationship to God, who is there. Man forgets his purpose and thus he forgets who he is and what life means.” 

He is right.  Let me suggest to you that we do not always take on-board fully our mission, who we are in relation to God, and the life we have been given to live.  We do not always adopt unequivocally that intention to live out the Gospel message, to show compassion to all and to live out our faith in this broken world, difficult though that nay be.  Acknowledging our connection to God is the key that unlocks the ethic of love for one another, despite our differences.

Now, this might all seem quite overwhelming.  And it is.  How can we, ordinary individuals make that difference, to reflect more deeply on how we relate to others?  How do we do something that, is quite frankly, so difficult?  Well, we start with what we have and what we have been given; we start here.  Once we have acknowledged the intrinsic value of the other, whoever that might be, then we can reflect on what our response might be.

And here is just one more thought.  Even within those most like us, for example those who share our Christian faith, there can still be a hierarchy of empathy that develops.  Consider then these words from Thomas Merton, which were written in the context of segregation in the US, but the sentiment undergirding it is more broadly applicable, and surely causes us to stop and think: If we realize that we are each bound to the other members of the human race in the Mystical Body of Christ, that we must love the human race as a whole, and love all the groups which constitute it, then we can scarcely fail to realize the evil as well as the stupidity of hating any part of the Mystical Body of Christ…. There are persons who feel quite acutely the duty of individual kindness to persons of other races, and yet who seem to be totally unconscious of the injustice of race relations as a whole…who are violently antagonistic to any effort to reform the political, economic, social, and even religious oppression of the coloured race. Would this be possible to anyone who really believed in the doctrine of the Mystical Body?’

Merton’s point is well made.

Now personally, I do not really ‘do’ New Year Resolutions.  But this year, the closest I have come to one is to think more deeply, more prayerfully on how I affirm the God-given identity of others.  I need to take on-board, not just intellectually, but emotionally, the profundity of that truth that we are all made in the image of God. You too will, I have no doubt, make your own response to this call.

As we collectively go forward into this New Year, we have the opportunity to take on board the biblical injunctions we have explored, to listen to the prophetic words of people like Thomas Merton and Francis Schaeffer, and yes even revisit Robert Burns and his calls for brotherhood and a recognition of the value of the other.

With the help of God, Let us do just that.

AMEN

compassion

resilience

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A recent study by Northeastern University’s David DeSteno, published in Psychological Science, gives a fascinating insight into the impact of meditation on interpersonal harmony and compassion.

According to DeSteno, “The truly surprising aspect of this finding is that meditation made people willing to act virtuous – to help another who was suffering – even in the face of a norm not to do so,”  

Such empirical investigations add credence to what Buddhist practitioners have said all along, namely that meditation leads to greater feelings of compassion and ‘oneness’. And it’s not just Buddhists: Jews and Christians have long made the connection between compassion and contemplative prayer.

Often we over-analyze faith and how we live it when all we really need to do is to keep it simple….and nothing is more simple than meditation and contemplation….and nothing is as powerful than compassion.

You can read the press release from Northeastern University outlining the key points of DeSteno’s paper here:

Can Meditation Make You a More Compassionate Person?.

Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 145 Bild-00014770 / CC-BY-SA

Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 145 Bild-00014770 / CC-BY-SA

Albert Schweitzer (14 January 1875 – 4 September 1965) was unique.  A theologian, musician, philosopher, physician, and medical missionary and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Schweitzer was a Christian who lived out his faith in an intensely practical way.

After giving up a career as a distinguished theologian, Schweitzer dedicated his life to serving God as a physician in the West African mission field, more specifically Lambaréné, now in Gabon, but then in French Equatorial Africa. It was there that he built a hospital that served a multitude of people from far and wide.

I first came across Schweitzer when I read his famous ‘The Quest of the Historical Jesus’, then ‘On the Edge of the Primeval Forest’ and the intriguingly titled ‘The Psychiatric Study of Jesus’. A talented and insightful writer, I always got the impression that as a man, Schweitzer was rather modest and avoided couching his thoughts and philosophies in the strident language of a self-assured academic.

Most impressive though for me, was Schweitzer’s ‘Reverence for Life’ philosophy, which adopted the principle of non-violence and concern for others as a consistent ethic to live by.  And live by this he did, although he was pragmatic enough to entertain slight deviations from these principles when circumstances dictated.

Also noticeable was Schweitzer’s distaste for colonialism.  Indeed he once wrote:

“Who can describe the injustice and cruelties that in the course of centuries they (the coloured peoples) have suffered at the hands of Europeans? … If a record could be compiled of all that has happened between the white and the coloured races, it would make a book containing numbers of pages which the reader would have to turn over unread because their contents would be too horrible.”

That said, by today’s standards he would still be judged as somewhat paternalistic, but judged by the standards of the time, he was socially progressive.

The film ‘Albert Schweitzer’ is a study in Christian Orthopraxy and explores Schweitzer’s journey, showing his ‘Reverence for Life’ philosophy. Part biographical drama/part documentary, this captivating film (with actors playing the characters), traces Schweitzer’s life from birth to about the age of 30 when he makes the decision to devote his life to medical missionary work. The latter half of the film looks at Schweitzer’s busy schedule in the hospital-village and portrays a man who cares deeply for the humans and animals that surround him.

Schweitzer’s ethic is as relevant today, if not more, than it was in his lifetime. In an era of environmental degradation, human and animal exploitation, we surely need to rediscover the power of orthopraxy.

A good place to start is by watching the film which can be accessed here via YouTube:

Dawn Loggins grew up in a home with no electricity or running water. Her home life was chaotic.

Before the start of her senior year at Burns High School, where she also works as a janitor, she was abandoned by her parents and found herself homeless.

Rather than turning her over to the Department of Social Service, school staff and the community of Lawndale, North Carolina decided to become Dawn’s family. They’ve supported her with housing and have helped her to complete her secondary school education.

Dawn is an incredibly hard worker and has maintained her grades despite the emotional and financial hardship she’s endured.

Dawn is not angry with her parents – she just knows that she wants to make different decisions in her life. And this she has done already – her grades are excellent and she’s even been accepted by Harvard.

The Lawndale community are so proud of Dawn’s achievements, they have agreed to support her through her Harvard studies.

Dawn’s story is so heartwarming; it reminds us all that we really can make a difference to the lives of others. Community really can work! As the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once wrote: “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.’

 You can watch Dawn’s inspirational story here: From Homeless to Harvard

According to Kristin Neff, Professor of Human Development & Culture at the University of Texas at Austin: ‘People can use their skills of compassion for others to learn how to be more self-compassionate. Whenever you find yourself being very harsh with yourself, you can think of the types of warm, supportive things you’d say to a close friend in the same situation, and then say those same words to yourself. We can include ourselves in the circle of compassion, and stop acting as if others are worthy of care but we are not’.

Interesting stuff with a very practical application.  The world needs more compassionate people.  As Jesus said in Matthew 7:12 – So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets’.

You can read the entire article here:

 

Can Being More Compassionate Toward Others Make Us More Self-Compassionate?.

Porcelain Unicorn

Posted: March 17, 2012 in Compassion, Ethics, Film
Tags: , ,

Film director Sir Ridley Scott recently launched a contest with a world-wide reach aimed at aspiring directors.  Scott’s initiative was entitled ‘Tell it Your Way’ and attracted in excess of 600 entries. The rules stipulated that the film must be no longer than three minutes, contain only six lines of narrative and be a compelling and engaging story.

The winner was ‘Porcelain Unicorn’ submitted by American director Keegan Wilcox.  The film consists of a couple of snapshots of the lives of two different, yet similar people, and how their paths unexpectedly cross.

A beautiful and engaging film, this is a must watch!

I have finally got round to watching Velcrow Ripper’s award-winning documentary, ‘Scared Sacred’.  Against the backdrop of a world overwhelmed by turmoil and suffering, Ripper sets out on a unique, and often difficult, pilgrimage.  His task is to visit what he calls the ‘Ground Zeros’ of the planet, and in doing so, he poses the question – ‘is it possible to find hope in some of the darkest moments of human history?’

To answer his own very pertinent question, Ripper travels to the toxic wasteland of Bhopal, the minefields of Cambodia, war-torn and fear-ridden Afghanistan, New York in the aftermath of 9/11 and the ruined cityscapes of Bosnia.  He talks compassionately to the survivors of Hiroshima and gains insight from those who have suffered most in the Israel-Palestine conflict. This he does with consummate skill, resulting in a beautifully crafted and emotionally intense documentary which charts Ripper’s five-year sojourn to discover if wounded humanity can transform the ‘scared’ into the ‘sacred’.

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The religious scholar, former nun and inter-faith activist, Karen Armstrong, has called upon faith leaders to collaborate to promote peaceful coexistence.  You can see her interview with Al Jazeera’s Riz Khan below.  The Charter for Compassion is an excellent initiative that works to bring people of faith together – have a look at the website (www.charterforcompassion.org)which is packed with resources and interesting practical information on how we can all live more compassionate lives in line with our respective faith traditions.