“Where It Leads Us” with Rev. Melanie Eyre
What’s your goal in so intentionally pursuing a spiritual path? A great many people don’t, and on the outside they appear to get along just fine. Well, one of the answers for many of us is the development of deeper compassion, which connects us to our own heart and to each other. We move out of our ego-selves, our constant focus on ourselves, to a wider circle of love and caring for all beings. Our hearts and our minds open to the deeper truth of oneness, and that’s reward aplenty.
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A revised transcript of this week’s talk is provided below for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Prayers, readings, and songs from this week’s service are also provided below.
Community Circles Discussion Guide – No gathering this week.
Good and Gracious God whom we call by many names. We welcome your presence abiding in each of us as the breath of life. Breathe in us anew, that we might know you. Call us to our highest and best way of being even now. Quicken us to see the wonderful miracles happening around us and in us as we seek to be awakened to the power of love. Dwell in us boundless and raise us not for our old lives but for new life, courageously present to love and to serve one another. May it be so!
Adapted from a prayer by the Rev. Juanita Rasmus of St. John’s Downtown Church (United Methodist)
A Prayer for Peace
I desire neither earthly kingdom, nor even freedom from birth and death.
I desire only the deliverance from grief of all those afflicted by misery.
Oh Lord, lead us from the unreal to the real; from darkness to light; from death to immortality.
May there be peace in celestial regions.
May there be peace on earth.
May the waters be appeasing.
May herbs be wholesome and may trees and plants bring peace to all.
May all beneficent beings bring peace to us. May your wisdom spread peace all through the world.
May all things be a source of peace to all and to me.
Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti (Peace, peace, peace).
From the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence
Welcome! I hope you’re having a wonderful Memorial Day weekend. This weekend, we just embrace the opportunities we have to gather back together, to take off our masks, to hug each other and sit around a table. These simple joys we once took for granted we now no longer do.
Memorial Day Weekend
This weekend we honor the men and women who gave, as President Lincoln so memorably said, the last full measure of devotion for their country. They did it so that we can be together, in freedom and in safety, even if they never will.
This weekend, when we honor their sacrifice, is a fitting time to explore today’s topic, which is how we change, how we create communities that can live together in peace, locally and globally. Such a tall order, but wise men and women throughout history have shown us ways we can try, and we must, so that someday new names will not be added to the rolls of those we honor on Memorial Days to come.
This process starts with each of us – it is an inside job, as we say. However, it surely does not stop with us. Our goal is not to find “inner peace” and remain in our peaceful solitude, up on some figurative mountain. We are here to mix it up – to be a presence of peace, forgiveness, kindness in the midst of our busy lives. As Henry Nouwen said “the spiritual life does not remove us from the world but leads us deeper into it.” We learn, we practice so that we can leave this place more loving and kinder than it was when we showed up.
One takeaway from this month . . .
Many thanks to the speakers we’ve had this month who have shared with us practical steps we can take on walking this path, from Rev. Marylou Palmer talking about new beginnings, to Rev. Chris Kell exploring the power of surrender, to Asha Lightbearer on the wisdom that unfolds for us as we work the 12 steps of AA. We also learned more about the Buddha’s teachings of the eightfold path to awakening, a process for detaching ourselves from the suffering that arises when we see our world only with the eyes of ego, and of separation.
If I had one takeaway from this month, it would be that these processes, as they say in AA, work if you work them. I like to say that we here at One World are a community of practice, and our goal this month has been to emphasize that point, and suggest some of the different practices available to us. They work if you work them. Like exercise, like a diet, like any change we decide to make in our lives.
Karen Armstrong: “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.”
I’m closing out the month with another set of practices, and I hope you’ll take the time to explore them on your own. The author I turn to today is Karen Armstrong, and I’ve based my talk today on her wonderful book “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.”
Armstrong has long been a force for compassion in our world. She spent her early years as a religious sister, left the convent and became a scholar of comparative religions. After her years in the convent, she found herself at one point in Jerusalem making a film about early Christianity, and she realized she knew so little about the other Abrahamic faiths that lived so closely with Christianity in that city, and so she began to study Judaism and Islam. She began to lecture and teach about the need for greater interfaith understanding and, not acceptance as so many call it, but appreciation of other faith traditions as a means to help us understand our common humanity across traditions. Regardless of language, imagery or liturgy, we humans wherever we are create traditions that emphasize compassion, community, forgiveness, kindness and peace. What does this mean? It’s wired into us.
In February of 2008 she won the TED Prize, awarded annually to those creative thinkers dedicated to making positive global change. She used that occasion to call for the creation of a Charter for Compassion, a call to action for all nations and all of us to turn to a more compassionate way of living together in a world increasingly divided and fearful. She saw it as our only way forward.
The Charter for Compassion was drafted by a multi-faith, multi-national group calling itself the Council of Conscience. The creators of the Charter envisioned the creation of compassionate cities, compassionate communities, in which all are respected and nurtured. As she writes, a compassionate world is a peaceful world. Our reading today is the Charter for Compassion.
Armstrong travels the world promoting compassionate action as what she calls “the task of our time” – the only way we are going to be able to live together in sustainable global community.
Teaching compassion can be challenging . . .
Teaching compassion can be challenging, because it’s a change in paradigm for us. On the one hand, every world religion has compassion at its heart – every one has a version of the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you; or its inverse, do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you. On the other hand, as she said in her 2008 TED talk, when she speaks about compassionate action to church groups she looks out and sees faces she describes as mutinous – apparently people would rather be right than compassionate. Compassion requires us to put our ego aside, and see the world through the view of another, and act on that vision. Not easy. Where do we start?
Armstrong’s book rose out of her wish to give us a process, to give us steps, to awaken compassion in our own lives and bring it to the world. She gave us a 12 step program, and, again, it works if you work it. As she puts it, you don’t learn to drive by reading the owner’s manual. You have to get in and start it up, and go.
So today I’d like to share with you her 12 steps for a compassionate life. Take a look at this resource, and if you’re interested try the program. If you are drawn to it, form a book group with some friends and do it together.
1. Learn about compassion.
Each of the world’s faith tradition teaches compassion, in different scriptures, imagery, stories. Here she says look at your own traditions, or at whatever tradition resonates with you, and sit with their teachings on compassion. There are myths, stories, imagery that open our hearts and our imaginations to others, that lead us deeper into understanding what compassion is. The term compassion means to “endure something with another person.” The other is not an object of pity, but one whom you accompany through pain, through grief, putting yourself in their shoes and stepping into their point of view.
We also take the opportunity to look at the scriptures of other faith traditions – we see that the call for compassion and peace is a universal one, woven into our very essence as human beings. Each tradition has its own rich way of conveying this wisdom. She tells the story of the Buddha who, after he’d left his wealthy lifestyle and lived for several years as an ascetic, eating so little that he nearly died, realized that what had brought him the most joy in his life had been the few moments when as a child he sat under an apple tree. He saw a few shoots of grass that had been torn up, and some tiny insects had been killed. He felt a welling up of grief, and that moment of empathy took him outside of himself. As he continued to sit, he experienced a welling up of spontaneous joy.
This memory taught him that instead of trying only to annihilate desire or violence he must also foster lovingkindness, concern for all, the ability to release the focus on himself. Compassion leads to joy.
Is this historically accurate. We don’t know. However, the lesson is timeless.
In the Jewish tradition, the story is told of the sage Hillel, who was approached by a nonbeliever who promised to convert to Judaism if Hillel would recite the entire Torah while standing on one leg. The wise man replied “what is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah, and the rest is but commentary. Go and study it.” We look into our own hearts to see what causes us pain, and we then refuse to inflict it on others.
The Prophet Muhammad said it this way “not one of you can be a believer unless he desires for his neighbor what he desires for himself.”
In the Christian scriptures, what is the message? “If I have all the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing.”
When we sit with such wisdom, letting it simply speak to us, we draw it into our hearts, internalize it, remember truths we knew but perhaps had forgotten.
2. Look at your own world
Scriptures, however inspirational, are no use unless they help us in our lives right now, in this world right here. We don’t really need rituals or liturgies that spoke to people dead for thousands of years – we have issues today. So in this step, we look at our own families, communities, friendships, nation – our own world, and we interpret this ancient wisdom for today’s times.
In our modern age, we have this continuing clash over how to read the scriptures, particularly in our culture the Christian scriptures. We have many who claim the “traditional” way is to read the scriptures literally. In actuality, that is a very recent way to approach these texts. If you went up to a first century Jew and told her that the Torah must be interpreted literally, or historically, she would look at you as if you’d lost your mind. The stories were myth, allegory – teaching a truth that very likely never happened but which nonetheless is eternally true. Did Jacob actually wrestle with an angel, or is the myth asking us to wrestle with our own doubts and fears? Which version leads us into deeper understanding, deeper connection with God? That is the way to read it.
Armstrong writes that St. Augustine, the formational Christian theologian, insisted that scripture taught only charity. She writes “whatever the bibilical author may have intended, any passage that seems to preach hatred and was not conducive to love must be interpreted allegorically and made to speak of love.” What a mindbending view! How can that open up the Bible to exploration, interpretation, and application in our own lives?
Ask yourself – what does this wisdom teach me about right now, about getting along with my coworker, my spouse, those with whom I never agree on anything? Use this wisdom to expand your own ability to move through these questions.
3. Compassion for yourself
In the same way that peace begins with us, compassion does as well. She tells the story of Rabbi Albert Friedlander, who lived as a child in Nazi Germany, and was inundated with messages of his own inferiority. As he lay in bed one night, he made a list in his mind of all his good qualities, and all the gifts he had, and he determined to keep his focus on them and use them to build a better world. He grew into an extraordinarily kind and gentle man. He said, however, that he could never have shown love for anyone else unless he first learned to love himself. Start with yourself – it may be your highest hurdle.
This step calls for self-awareness and clarity, in much the same way as AA’s step 4, as we learned last week, calls for a searching and fearless moral inventory. We see ourselves clearly, gifts and weaknesses, to truly extend compassion to ourselves. We look not with judgment or condemnation, but with forgiveness and perhaps humor. We step back, and know that this behavior is not us at our deepest level – it is our fear, our doubt. It is not us. Only then can we look at others, with their weaknesses and flaws that punch all our buttons, and extend compassion for them as well. Others too act from fear, and when we see it in ourselves we cannot help but recognize it in them, as well.
4. This is the fourth step – empathy
As we become acquainted with our own weaknesses, our own pain, we are more able to understand that of others.
5. The fifth step is mindfulness
Mindfulness is a quality we speak about a great deal. As you go through your day, you can observe your shifting emotions and the causes of them. What causes you irritation or stress? What brings you joy? You become more able to direct your thoughts, releasing the stress and choosing to return to what gives you greater joy. As you learn more about your own responses to the incoming stream of life, so you are able to understand more about others.
6. Put these principles into action
Now we move into action, the necessary next step. As you can see by now, all these steps build upon each other, and in many ways overlap. Again, you don’t learn to drive by reading the manual.
Here, we bring our awareness to applying the lessons learned to our dealings with each other. My daughter Katharine taught me this lesson the other day – I was in a bad mood for some reason or other, and it apparently was spilling over into my interactions with the kids. Finally she’d had enough, and she said “mom, you know what my teacher said? If you’re in a bad mood, don’t take it out on others.” She was already a master of this step. As Armstrong puts it, shield others from your destructive tendencies, and try to lighten their lives with acts of friendship.
And if you don’t feel it? It’s amazing how the actions we take lead to changes in how we feel. It was C.S. Lewis who said “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”
Step out and put these principles into action.
7. How little we know
The seventh step is one that so resonates with me. She calls it “How little we know.” We tend to be such snap experts. In this step, we examine our assumptions, our judgments, our snap decisions about people, events, and we examine in detail what we actually know about it. If you’re like me, it’s probably lots less than you think. Are you making room for more information? Are you willing to enter into another’s viewpoint based on facts you learn, or are you sticking with what you believe come hell or high water? Again, this is an exercise to help us enter into another’s viewpoint – to, as Armstrong calls it “make place for the other.”
8. Awareness of dialogue
The seventh flows into eight, which focuses our awareness of dialogue. She calls it How should we speak to one another? All too often we don’t discuss – we engage in serial monologue. I wait (impatiently) for you to finish talking until I can jump into my brilliant observations, which I’ve been formulating in my mind while you’re speaking – instead of, say, listening.
This step encourages us to remember we may not know, and to listen with respect and openness to the other. If they seem fearful, there is a reason why, and we have the opportunity to extend empathy to them instead of judgment. So often we feel personally attacked when our viewpoint is questioned – why? Can we remove our ego from these discussions? What may happen when we do?
9. Concern for everybody
Here we take a step out of our tendency to limit our care and concern to those we know, those who look or believe like us. The Qu’ran teaches “Behold, I have created you all out of a male and a female and have formed you into tribes and nations so that you may get to know one another.” Yes, we form into groups, but we learn from our differences that we are all one. Our differences give us the opportunity to see beyond them, to recognize each other as neighbors, as brothers and sisters. Especially in today’s world, we cannot retreat behind walls, behind cultural similarities, geography or skin color, behind any artificial indicator that separates “us” from “them.” We do not have room. We do not have time.
This one is closely related to the earlier step asking “how little we know.” Find out about other countries, other cultures, other faith traditions. Don’t rely on what you’re told – find out for yourself. What are your assumptions about other cultures or faith traditions? Take the time to learn, with curiosity and openness.
Again, this step flows from the earlier ones. What is yours to do? Just yours, that fits your gifts. As Armstrong puts it “there is a need that you – and only you – can fulfill. Find where your mission is, and do it.
12. Love your enemies
The final step brings all the earlier ones together. Love your enemies. It is this ethic that will make future Memorial Days moments to honor sacrifices long-past. It is truly concern for all.
Toward the end of his life, Gandhi said he no longer hated anyone. He said “mine is not an exclusive love. I cannot love Moslems or Hindus and hate Englishmen. For if I love merely Hindus and Moslems because their ways are on the whole pleasing to me, I shall soon begin to hate them when their ways displease me, as they may well do at any moment. A love that is based on the goodness of those whom you love is a mercenary affair.”
This is not easy, and it’s not immediate. I have not managed it, and sometimes I don’t know where to start. What I do know is that these twelve steps are a wonderful road to travel, with our hearts open and willing. That’s where we start, and the ending is up to us.
About Rev. Melanie
Rev. Melanie Eyre is an ordained Interspiritual Minister and long-time student of the world’s many diverse faith traditions. She has served as One World’s Spiritual Director since 2015 and is the founder of the North Fulton Interfaith Alliance here in Georgia. Outside of One World, Rev. Melanie has a beautiful family and enjoys officiating traditional and non-traditional rituals and other special ceremonies that mark important life transitions – weddings, baby blessings, and celebrations of life.
For more about Rev. Melanie and her practice, visit her website: Memorable Services with Heart.
“Love, Love, Love” – traditional
“That’s Love” by John Stringer
This service aired on May 30, 2021