Sunday, February 16, 2020

“The Compassion of Resilience” by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 2/16/2020

Story: “What the Turtle Taught Theodore” By Gary Kowalski
Theodore Parker was born 1810 and died in 1860.  In his autobiography, Theodore Parker relates that as a child, four or five years old, living on a farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts he was walking through the fields one day absent-mindedly swinging a stick through the tall grass. This was many years ago, in the days before the Civil War. It was summertime. He stopped to watch the water bubble along a creek. Then he noticed a turtle sunning itself on a rock.
He’d seen other boys use their sticks to hit turtles and other animals. It was part of what children thought was fun, just as some children still like to bully and hit those who are weaker than themselves. Often children, and grown-ups too, are copycats — mimicking the behavior of others who seem bigger or stronger than themselves. Young Theodore wanted to be like the other, older boys he’d seen, so he raised his stick into the air, taking aim and preparing to knock the turtle into the water.
Then something stopped him. Something seemed wrong about the situation. He looked again at the turtle, quiet, peaceful, enjoying the summer day just as he liked to feel the warmth and light of the sun. Had the turtle ever done him any harm? Was the turtle so different than himself? Slowly he lowered his stick and walked home, thinking about what had happened.
When he arrived home, his mother was there to greet him, and he told her about the incident. She listened carefully to Theodore, and listened especially carefully when he related how some strange force inside had stopped him from hitting the little animal. “Theodore,” she said, “that force inside you was the voice of conscience. Always pay attention to it. Always follow what your conscience tells you. It’s your moral compass that points you in the right direction. And if you honor your conscience, you’ll never go wrong in this world.”
Theodore Parker grew up to become a Unitarian minister, in fact one of the greatest leaders our faith has ever known. He became a champion of the defenseless who needed defending. He was a hero in the fight to end slavery in our country. He prayed to “Father and Mother God” and fought for women’s equality and their right to vote. He and his wife never had children of their own — but he felt a sense of kinship with the whole family of creation, people of all genders and races who had been made in the image of the holy. And it all started one summer day when he was just a child — a child who saw a turtle and decided to do what was right.
For those young and young at heart, we have crayons and a picture of a turtle for you to color, in order to remember young Theodore by.

    I didn’t want to forget that Valentine’s Day just passed us by.  So I was looking for some Valentine’s Day cards that might be meaningful to Unitarian Universalists.  Here's one I came across: "Will you join the committee of my heart?" 

            And on NPR--all Unitarian Universalists listen to NPR right--I heard about this Islamic woman, Taz Ahmed, who is making Valentine cards for Millennials.  Here are some of hers.  “Cupid dropped an airstrike on my heart.”  “I’d never Muslim ban you from my heart.”  “Wanna roleplay TSA.”  And my favorite, “Call your representative…then call me.”
            Let’s get back to compassion and resilience.  To refresh our memory of the definition that we’re working with: resilience is being able to spring back emotionally after suffering through difficult and stressful times in one's life.  And compassion is the how we show others that we wish them to be free of suffering.
            When I was a chaplain in a Houston area hospital, I learned more about compassion and resilience than I could have ever imagined.  I was on-call late one night and received a page, yes we still had pagers, to go up to the cardiac unit.  When I arrived I went straight to the nurse’s station to find out who was in need.  The nurse told me that an African American woman was coding over and over again—her heart stopping—and the staff was required to bring her back to life over and over again.  The nurse was quite distressed.  She said the family demanded that the staff bring the woman back to life each time she coded.  At that moment, I heard another code go off and watched the staff run to the woman’s room, beat on her chest—I learned later breaking some of her ribs—then providing a shock to the heart.  I heard the family say something like, “She can’t die. She can’t die.  Don’t let her die.”
            After this chaos settled down, the nurse told me that the family didn’t trust the doctors and nurses to adequately treat their mother, this woman, because she was poor and black.  They were convinced that she was not getting the best treatment and that is why she was dying.  The staff asked me to talk to the family—five adults, three teenagers, and one toddler.  The five adults were her children, the teenagers and toddler her grandchildren.
            I hesitantly went over and asked if I could talk to them. I felt I was in over my head.  What could I—a newbie chaplain on my first overnight on-call-- offer this family?  So I simply started by asking them their names and their mother’s name.  As we introduced ourselves, I guided them to a room down the hall.  I let them talk, tell me about their distrust of the doctors and hospitals, then they talked about believing it was not their mother’s time to die.  Soon they were telling me that they didn’t know how they would live without her.  I asked them to tell me stories about her.  And each had wonderful stories, we talked for about an hour, about how she had kept them safe from the gangs, helped them get a good education, took care of the grandchildren.  She was the only parent they knew.  She was only person in their lives who showed them unconditional love—those are my words, not theirs, but I could tell that is what they were saying through their stories.  And amazingly enough, the mother didn’t code during that time. 
            After they started to wind down, I asked them what they wanted to do.  It seems no-one had asked them before.  All the staff had been doing was telling them what was happening and that the family needed to stop making the staff revive her and let her go.  I don’t think poorly of the staff; they too were under great stress, with the family accusing them of not taking adequate care of their mother.  I realized that the staff would also need some time with a chaplain after the family had some closure.
            The interesting thing was after I asked them what they wanted, they asked me what I thought they should do?  Well, I said I couldn’t tell them, but I wondered what they wanted to say to their mother, what they needed to tell her, and if they wanted to pray with their mother.  There was a sense of relief that came over the family as I said this, as well as tears.  Not hysterical tears like the ones that had been flowing before, but tears of relief, of release.
            They thought about it and said yes they had some things to say and did want to pray with their mother.  So together we went into their mother’s room.  I turned down the lights.  I lit a candle.  I guided the family around the bed, circling their mother.  I started with telling their mother that the family was with her and they wanted to talk.  One by one, they hesitantly did.  When the talking ended, I began a prayer and let each family member add to it in their own way.  Then I asked if the family was ready to say goodbye.  A rush of tears and then they all nodded their heads yes. 
            A few minutes after the family left, the woman passed away peacefully.
            This experience has stayed with me all these years.  How a little compassion and empathy can go a long way to help someone experience the path to resilience.  I did nothing miraculous.  Mostly what they needed was someone to listen, feel their pain, and encourage them to find a path forward for themselves. 
            Compassion given made an impact on this family, left me with an experience that still guides my actions, and also helped the staff feel some relief as well.  The staff did not want to continue prolonging this woman’s life, when they knew they were just lengthening her suffering. 
            In this faith community, one of the Principles we affirm is justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.  So often we focus on the justice and equity part of that Principle, wanting others to be treated justly or equitably.  But sometimes that doesn’t happen and, my friends, suffering is not something that is just or equitable.  Suffering comes to us all.  And compassion and empathy, which I believe are connected, are qualities we can cultivate to lessen the impact of suffering not only on others, but on ourselves as well. 
            Think back on the story of Theodore Parker and the turtle.  Parker by stopping himself from the destructive behavior he saw exhibited by others, and then reflecting with his own conscience on his relationship with the turtle, another living thing, felt within himself empathy for this little creature and treated the turtle with compassion, or at the very least did not hurt the turtle.  Sometimes that’s what compassion looks like in young children.  If you can help at least don’t hurt.  Parker wrote about this event in his life and wrote that it was foundational to his life, future, his work in the world, his prayers and his preaching.  He experienced from that moment on a sense of kinship with the whole family of creation, including people of all genders and races all who were made in the image of the holy.
            Parker is one of my favorite forebears.  His life and his writings teach me each time I read them.  They remind me to treat all people and creatures as if they are a spark of the divine.  They remind me to have empathy and compassion for all that exists on this planet and this planet itself.  For me, thinking of all creation as a spark of the divine helps me stop, as Parker did before using that stick, and reflect on the best way to treat those around me, and to treat them all with respect, dignity, worth, empathy, and compassion. 
Let me share a part of one of Parker’s prayers:  O Thou Infinite Power, whom [humans] call by varying names, but whose grandeur and whose love no name expresses and no words can tell…  [yet whose being is] in every star that flowers above and every flower that flames beneath…We thank thee for the primal virtues which shine aloft as stars, and not less for the charities which heal and soothe and bless, and are scattered at [our] living feet as flowers.  We bless thee for the great truths which have come down to us on the sounding way through the ages, encouraging and strengthening men [and women].  We thank thee for the poets  and prophets and mighty men [and women] of thought and piety, who spoke as they were moved… and brought truth to hu[mankind]; we thank thee that in our own day, not less, thy spirit still works with the children [of humanity]… May we learn what is right and…with all the strength that is in us…love our brothers [and sisters] as we love ourselves, and grow [in this]constantly… May we grow wiser and more just, be filled with more loving-kindness to our brother men [and sister women], and have a heartier and holier love…May no success in this world’s affairs ever harden our hearts, but make us more noble and more generous, and may the world’s sorrow and sickness and grief and disappointment and loss only rouse up the better soul that is in us ...”
       Let that sink in.  Each time I read this, I find things I need to remember to do in my life, and I experience new awarenesses.  I am reminded of my ministerial aspirations.  I remember to stop and notice the beauty all around me and recall again my interconnectedness with all creation.  And I remember to treat all creation as holy.  Treating creation as holy, to me, means that I need to practice compassion and empathy every day with all creation. 
Compassion and resilience aren’t just gifts that you give to others.  It is important to offer compassion and love to yourself as a regular spiritual practice.  This builds resilience and reinforces our ability to be compassionate to others.  Psychotherapist Linda Graham, MFT ( Mental is Healing — Empathy is "Perspective Taking") wrote: “Compassion is one of a dozen positive, pro-social emotions that have been studied by behavioral scientists as well as neuroscientists for the last 20 years, along with gratitude, kindness, generosity, joy, awe, delight, and love. Self-compassion is especially potent because it activates the care-giving system [within us] and moves us to act, care, and protect [others].”  She went on:  “Resilience is a direct outcome of the practice [of compassion]. More compassion leads to more resilience.”
            We affirm that every person is important, of worth and dignity and I would say sacred. Accepting this, let us renew our pledge to live out those sacred and humane teachings that draw us toward compassion and love in ever-widening circles of care.  But first let’s start with ourselves.  So my friends I leave you with a meditation of love, compassion, and peace. I have been using this meditation each night for the past year and a half.  It is simply breathing in as I say to myself “I breathe in love and compassion” and when I breathe out, saying to myself, “I breathe out peace.” 

Monday, February 10, 2020

“If You Are Going Through Hell, Keep Going” by Reverend Tom Capo preached on 2/9/2020

I thought I would start out with a little Unitarian Universalist history about hell.  Universalism is one of the two denominations that came together to form the Unitarian Universalist religion that we have today.  Universalism in its earlier form was a belief that all people are destined to be reunited with god after they die. Universalists did not believe in damnation or hell.  In 1882, Universalist minister Reverend Hosea Ballou explored the concepts of hell and salvation in his book A Treatise On Atonement.  He wrote that nothing caused more harm to the understanding of Jesus than the idea of atonement, that Jesus died for our sins. He said salvation has nothing to do with being saved from eternal damnation when we die; he believed that we carry guilt from the hells, the harm, we have caused in the here and now, and the only atonement, or salvation, is how we make amends with those we have harmed in the here and now.  Ballou believed that human emotions prompt us to moral or immoral actions, so we are invited to strengthen the emotions that reap happiness for ourselves and others. In Ballou's words: "We cannot be profitable to others unless we savor of the Spirit within [ourselves]."

            Our Universalist heritage has two messages for us to consider today: deal with the hell we experience in the here and now and attend to ways to bring happiness into our lives and the lives of those around us. 

           I have been through hell a time or two.  At least for me, going through hell is not just about the guilt we experience when we cause harm to others, but the suffering we choose to inflict on ourselves after we experience pain, hurt, resentment, and grief.  And salvation is making things right within ourselves as well as with those around us in the here and now.

            Early in my relationship with Martha, my loving wife, our life was perfect, at least I felt it was.  We were in love, getting to know each other, and living life in a commune—everything was easy.  Then came my first Christmas with my wife’s mother, Bitsy.  This is one of those times in my life that I felt I was going through hell.  And to be fair, Martha felt that way, too.  It’s probably important to know that Bitsy didn’t like me early in my relationship with Martha.  She told Martha I was a long-haired hippy that shouldn’t be allowed in her house; she has sent a detective to spy on us while we were dating in college; and she tried to break us up by forcing Martha into being a Debutante, having various young men escort her to a number of parties, as part of San Antonio’s high society.  Martha and I weathered all those events without letting them disturb our lives, our perfect square, too much.  But here’s the thing, Bitsy didn’t want me at her house on Christmas and I can own I wasn’t all that thrilled either.  Martha and I arrived on Christmas Eve at her house after a 5-hour drive, tired and hungry.  Needless to say, I was emotionally vulnerable.  Martha’s sister, Laura, was already there, along with Bitsy.  As the afternoon started, Bitsy didn’t want anyone to eat until after we opened gifts.  I was starving, blood sugar dropping, but didn’t want to upset anyone by leaving to get something to eat, a little people pleasing and a little giving up control of my emotions to Bitsy.  We sat down to open gifts.  Bitsy gave Martha and Laura wonderful gifts; I was too miserable to remember what they were.  Almost as an afterthought, Bitsy handed me a gift—I had hoped it was a peace offering and that things were looking up.  I opened it.  Three white dish towels.  I had never received dish towels as a gift either before or after that time.  I thought, “well at least they are useful” so I said, “Thank you.”  This gift was not a peace offering.  And so I moped around as we waited another hour and a half before getting anything to eat.  I remember not thinking pleasant things about Bisty as I moped, getting more and more angry and depressed.  I could easily have given up on the relationship, allowed my resentment to fester, perhaps given her the same dish towels the next Christmas.  After dinner, I decided that I didn’t want to be miserable any longer, and took a walk.  I returned and began to talk to Bitsy, to try to get to know her a little.  And I kept working on my relationship with Bitsy, Christmas after Christmas.  I treated her with respect and decided to not to give her power over my welfare or my joy anymore, so we got along much better, or perhaps I was no longer in hell, so I was a much happier person around her.  She did eventually come to like me, after Laura married someone Bitsy considered even worse than me.  What I learned from my time from Bitsy is if you are going through hell, keep going. 

            Many of us want to see our lives as perfect squares.  Everything going along as expected, no downs, no stressors, and if there are changes, well, they’re kind of predictable because you know, it’s a square, easy-peasy.  It is easy to get used to.  And then something happens that tears all that up, we can feel like we are in hell.  Then we have to decide what we are going to do.  We can stay stop in hell and suffer.  Or keep going through hell and see what happens. 

            Many of us have had times we consider to be “hell”.  The one I described might not seem that bad to some of you, but at the time, as a young adult, it sure seemed that way.  What you might describe as “hell” can run the gamut from a time when you felt miserable to when you felt extremely depressed.  These might be times of grief and loss or times of trauma.  It is not for any of us to judge whether someone’s experience was “hellish” or not.  The person who owns that experience gets to decide that.

            And here’s the thing, hell is when a personal pain becomes a lingering period of suffering.  We all have a tendency to do this—making things worse for ourselves by what we say to ourselves and how we treat ourselves after experiencing some emotional, physical, or spiritual pain.  Letting pain become “hell” is easy.  We are vulnerable, low on energy, distracted, and more reactive when we are in pain, thus it is easy to go from a big “OUCH!”, to “this is awful, I will never forgive them, I will never forgive myself, this pain will never go away, I can’t bear this, I can’t go on.”

            When you are going through hell, you might feel sorry for yourself, resist change, hold onto resentments, give others control over your emotions, dwell on what caused the pain, or resist trying to make things right within yourself or with people who may have been harmed. 

            When I was a psychotherapist, I worked with a lot of patients who were suffering.   People who were Vietnam Veterans, going through divorces, rape survivors, and so many more.  I decided I needed more skills to help people who were suffering, so I learned how to do Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.  Now I tell you about this treatment not so much to advocate it, but that I learned something from it.  This treatment involves desensitization of the pain and suffering, by taking the person back through the pain that they experienced—re-experiencing the event, feeling all the senses and emotions that they felt.  In so doing they stop putting energy into resisting thinking about the painful experience and they develop a new meaning and sometimes even a new purpose that helps them heal from the experience. Do they still have scars form the painful experience?  Yes.  Are they still defined by the scars of the experience?  No.

          Realizing that we can get through a hellish period in our lives is a   life lesson many of us have experienced, multiple times.  Sometimes after a period of suffering it is hard to remember that we have gotten anything from these experiences; that we have developed any new meaning or purpose after going through hell. John Dewey wrote: “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”   Thus the question--as we reflect on the times we felt like we were going through hell—is what did we learn besides that we can endure it.

            I want to share a very sensitive and painful period from my life.  My cousin, Tabitha, died by suicide using her father’s gun.  I was Tabitha’s godfather.  I was a 19 when she was born.  In my heart, I believed, and it was my responsibility to walk with her on her spiritual journey through life.  So when she died by suicide I knew in my heart that I had failed her.  My parents, my aunt and uncle, my other cousin, my brothers and I were emotionally devastated.  I, the psychotherapist in the family, was called upon to try to hold my aunt, Tabitha’s mother, together. I did what I could, but this was really a job for the whole family.  And I needed to make time for my own grief as well. And Martha and I had two children, toddlers at the time.  We had to figure out what to tell our boys to help them understand the death and the emotionally broken people around them.  Martha and I told our boys that Tabitha had lost her feelings and that resulted in her death.  A few weeks after the funeral, my 4-year-old son asked us to write my aunt and uncle a letter for him.  In the letter, he wrote that he knew they were sad and missed Tabitha.  He went on to say that she had lost her feelings, and that he didn’t want them to lose theirs.  He missed Tabitha.  And he told them he loved them.  
            What did I learn?  What new purpose did I carry away from this experience?  I learned that children have resilience, sometimes more so than adults.  I learned that I am not solely responsible for the welfare of others, that I need to take care of myself when going through hell.  I learned that gratitude is important in times of pain.  Gratitude for my wife’s support, gratitude for my children’s resilience and emotional intelligence.  I learned that while reflecting on the past and learning from it is a helpful, wallowing in it is harmful to me.  I learned that I need to create opportunities to be alone with my thoughts, reflect on my grief, pain, progress, and create goals for the future.  I learned that self-growth and healing, especially from deep emotional pain, takes time, and I have to be patient for that to occur.  The last thing I came away from that experience is a renewed commitment to say “I love you” to those in my life and show them that I love them.  I also committed to be more intentional about making time for those I love and walking beside them as they face the many thorns life presents them.    
          These painful times can be times of self-learning, self-growth, self-care if we open ourselves up to the breath of what the experiences have to offer, beyond pain.   It is likely that times that feel like hell will happen, but times that feel like hell are transient.  We need to remember that.  We have gotten through hell before.  And we need to remember to take care of ourselves before taking care of others; you know the drill, you hear it every time you get on an airplane, put the oxygen mask on yourself first.  And then do what we humans are so good at-get creative.  Take that pain and, when you are ready, make something meaningful out of it. We are meaning-making animals.   

             Okay, so your perfect square has been cut to pieces, poked full of holes, torn into scraps, shredded into strips, shattered, snipped into ribbons, crumpled and wrinkled.  Now what?  It’s not the end.  It’s a new beginning that you can put together in any way you want to.