"When Our Heart is in a Holy Place" as sacred text for sermon by Rev. Jane Page
I chose this song for this series because I like the melody, I like the lyrics, - it’s a sweet song. But using this as my sacred text made me think a little more deeply about it. And I asked myself – what is this Holy Place that Joyce Poley is referring to? And why do we need to have our hearts there to experience this love and amazing grace that she lifts up in her song? So I read the lyrics again – and I want to read them again for you as well. I just read the three verses then share the chorus at the very end.
And I realized that we are in that Holy Place when we embrace our common humanity and are truly able to empathize with others.
In his first inaugural speech, President Barack Obama said: “We cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself...”
But here we are now – so divided in this world and nation. Yes, our traveling and trade did make the world grow smaller – but it seems - instead of sharing love and empathy with one another, we’ve just shared deadly viruses. Are we just hard-wired to be selfish, competitive, and greedy?
In addition to celebrating LOVE in February, we lift up EVOLUTION! Darwin’s birthday is February 12 – same day and year as Lincoln’s. And many congregations that embrace SCIENCE celebrate the Sunday before or after his birthday as Evolution Sunday. So, that makes it even more appropriate for me to share a little about evolution today.
It is quite easy for us to see how we evolved selfishness – the whole “survival of the fittest” idea. But scientists are continuing to study the evolution of cooperation and empathy – and more about how or why that happened.
Take for example – the wolf. A lone wolf can only kill small animals. And the stronger and faster will get to that small animal first – and therefore that wolve’s genes will be more likely to survive evolution. However, if the wolf cooperates with others in a pack of wolves, they can kill big animals and the pack will thrive and therefore pass on those genes of cooperation.
So, especially with the evolution of mammals and the need to nurture the offspring via milk and care, those parents who were capable of doing this had offspring who survived, etc. Yeah for us!
Now the study of evolution shows us that when organisms evolve, they often keep remnants of their ancient selves. Sometimes they have these attributes even after they no longer use them. And sometimes, they still do need to use them. . Therefore, we refer to our “Reptilian Brain,” which can help or hurt us depending on the situation.
Now,There are lots of studies that show that empathy is not just a human trait – but certainly prevalent in other primates and more. But humanity has certainly evolved these more cooperative traits.
So – the bottom line is – it is human nature to be selfish; AND it is human nature to be empathetic.
Now, just as those wolves evolved to hunt in packs, humans also find power in crowds. In his Saturday Evening Post article “Can Our Common Humanity Unite Us,” Nicholas Christakis writes:
For good or ill, forming crowds comes so naturally to our species that it is even seen as a fundamental political right. It is codified in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which notes that “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” shall not be infringed by law. The inclination to assemble into groups and deliberately choose friends and associates is part of our species’ universal heritage.
And - Another human trait that we have is that we can be influenced by crowds. We just need enough of us to display love for all humanity and empathy for this to spread. If enough of us have this – then we can infect others and lovingkindness will spread – like a virus, but a good one.
In that video I shared with you during our story time, Brene Brown shares the attributes of empathy that we need to nourish and emulate for this to happen. I was fortunate to have more detailed training which used her videos while at a ministers’ retreat at the Mountain. So – I have been to the Mountain Top on this subject and hopefully have been able to take these lessons to heart.
In I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn't) (2008), Brown references nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman's four attributes of empathy:
- Perspective taking – that is to be able to see the world as others see it—This requires putting your own "stuff" aside to see the situation through another’s eyes. Sometimes that’s easier to do when reading a book or seeing a movie. Why is that?
- To be nonjudgmental—Judgement of another person's situation discounts the experience and is an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of the situation. This IS how it is for them. I know I’ve had an especially hard time of this with some folks.
- To understand the other person’s feelings. To do this, it helps to be in touch with our own feelings. You have to identify something in your own life where you have felt similarly. Now that doesn’t mean you share that with the other person. It just reminds you of how it feels to be rejected or lonely or like a failure, etc. To quote Joyce Poley’s song: “We see our face’s in each other’s eyes,” …”We hear our voices in each other’s words,”… and “We feel the power of each other’s faith.”
- To communicate your understanding of that person’s feeling. Rather than saying, "At least you..." or "It could be worse..." try, "I've been there, and that really hurts," Perhaps you haven’t been there – and don’t say you have if you haven’t. After I lost my son – I really appreciated all the caring responses. But sometimes folks would say something like – “I know how you feel. I recently lost my grandfather.” And I’m thinking – No, you don’t know how this feels. (But I knew their intention was good and they were trying to connect with my feelings.) Even if you haven’t been there, you can still share your understanding of their feeling. For example: (to quote an example from Brown), "It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.” Or – again to quote Brown – “I don’t know what to say, but I’m glad you told me.”
Now like swimming or riding a bike – we may have evolved the potential for doing some things, but perfecting them takes practice. “Brown explains that empathy is a skill that strengthens with practice and encourages people to both give and receive it often. By receiving empathy, not only do we understand how good it feels to be heard and accepted, we also come to better understand the strength and courage it takes to be vulnerable and share that need for empathy in the first place.”(Kate Theida in Psychology Today.)
So to culminate this sermon time, we’re going to practice with a Common Humanity Meditation that I found on the internet and modified.
In this Common Humanity Meditation we’ll be practicing acknowledging the similarities between ourselves and others. We often focus on differences, but realizing that even people who seem very different from us in fundamental ways are just like us, can become the basis of real connection.
This can include people we don't know very well, people with whom we're in conflict, or even people who we see as enemies. It's possible to develop a sense of compassion and understanding by coming to feel our shared sense of experience as human beings. This practice can help overcome that sense of difference and distrust by opening channels of compassion.
1. Let’s begin by taking a moment to allow your body to settle in a comfortable position, inviting a sense of ease and relaxation throughout the body [5 seconds].
And gently closing your eyes or looking downward just to limit visual distractions [5 seconds].
2. Allow yourself to take a deep breath in, and a long breath out. And as you breathe out, allowing a sense of releasing any tension that you're holding in your body [5 seconds].
3. Now bring someone to mind in your community who you don’t know very well, maybe someone who seems very distant or different from you, even someone you’re in a minor conflict with. And as you bring to mind this person you may not like or know very well, just notice if you experience any shift in sensation in your body [10 seconds].
Now - Hold this person in mind as if they were right in front of you.
5. And say to yourself, “This person has a body and a mind, just like me” [10 seconds].
“This person has feelings, emotions, and thoughts, just like me” [10 seconds].
“This person has at some point in their life been sad, angry, hurt, or confused, just like me” [15 seconds].
“This person has in their life experienced physical and emotional pain and suffering, just like me” [10 seconds].
“This person has experienced moments of peace, joy, and happiness, just like me” [10 seconds].
“This person wishes to have fulfilling relationships, just like me” [10 seconds].
“This person wishes to be healthy and loved, just like me” [10 seconds].
6. Now take a moment to sense how you’re feeling [5 seconds]. And as you hold this person in your awareness, just notice: What do you experience? [10 seconds].
7. Now as you hold this person in mind, send them good wishes. May they be well [5 seconds], may they be happy [5 seconds], may they be healthy [5 seconds], may they live with ease [10 seconds].
8. Now shifting your awareness back to your breath, breathing in [5 seconds], breathing out [5 seconds]. Reconnecting with your body, feeling present, alive, connected, right here, right now.
And now open your eyes. And I share with you a Namaste – The Spirit in me honors the Spirit in you.
(sing) – “We are blessed with love and amazing grace, when our heart is in a holy place.”
May it be so!