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Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Open Hearts Open Minds

Reflections

Cultivating Boundless Goodwill

A Reflection by Stephen Lingwood based on words delivered 26th January 2014

Reading from the Metta Sutta

Let us cultivate boundless goodwill. Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state.

Let none in anger or ill-will wish another harm. Even as a mother watches over a child, so with boundless mind should one cherish all living beings, radiating friendliness over the whole world, above, below, and all around, without limit.

 

Reading from Scott Alexander

During my final year in seminary, I decided to do a chapel for the faculty and students at the school, at which time I planned to expound on this pure and lovely gospel of universal human affirmation.

The morning of the chapel, I arose early and poured over my powerful and polemically perfect text. I was privately proud in advance of the depth and passion with which I grasped the essence of my Universalist heritage. As I walked the mile or so from my home to the school, my head was down as I silently rehearsed to myself all of the beautiful phrases I had crafted to make my sermon on Universalism come alive. As I approached a busy intersection, I happened to glance up and see an incredibly large woman sitting on a bench waiting for the bus. Now, I have always had a personal obsession about my own weight, and in those years was quite prejudiced and opinionated about people who weighed more than I thought they should. Before I could censor the unkind, judgmental thought, I blurted out to myself, “Oh dear God look at that gross woman. She must weigh 400 pounds. How could anyone let themselves get like that and who could ever love that?”

And at that moment, as if it were a bolt of spiritual lightening aimed right at me, a skinny little guy sitting next to her looked lovingly into her eyes, leaned over, and gave her the most gentle and loving kiss I have ever seen one human being bestow upon another. I was stunned and ashamed. And while I was still reeling from the jarring disparity between my petty and unkind judgment and his pure and simple love, a voice (without words, but in unmistakeable clarity, holiness and power) … a voice came out of the whirlwind and said to me (and me alone) “Don’t you get it, you dope. Here you are, at this very moment going up the hill to preach your clever little sermon on God’s love and universal salvation for every human person, and all you can do is sneer inside at someone you deem unworthy and unbeautiful. Don’t you understand that, in the eyes of all that is sacred and beautiful and holy and true in this creation, she is as utterly lovely as human beings get? Don’t you get it? If the pleasures and prerogatives, graces and goddesses of this creation are made for you (and you certainly claim them as a natural birthright for yourself) then they are made for her, too. And you call yourself a Universalist… puffff.”

I was as startled as I was chastened. In that moment of pure and precious spiritual revelation, a spirit of holiness I can only call God spoke to me with heart-numbing clarity, and I finally began to understand Universalism viscerally, deep in my bones. What it means to be a Universalist, a real Universalist in more than name only, is to have a heart that seeks and sees at every human turn the natural worth and preciousness of people – all people – especially those very different from oneself. In an instant, I understood what a wild and welcoming a doctrine our Universalist forebears bequeathed to us, and that doctrine can be summed up in stark simplicity: There is a place set in this creation for every last man, woman and child. A precious safe place has been set for each and every one of us – period! And it is our human job to respect, protect, and nurture the wellbeing of all of God’s diverse and curious children. The early Universalists said, pure and simple, that every human being, no matter how strange or flawed or unlovable or broken or weird they may seem, is to be protected, cherished, welcomed, loved.  

(From Alexander, S. W., Salted with Fire: Unitarian Universalist Strategies for Sharing Faith and Growing Congregations (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1994), 35 -37)

 

 

I went swimming this week.  It was the first time I had done so since Christmas – and it really felt like it! It felt like a lot of hard work. I’ve had a month of lots of chocolate and very little exercise and I’m a lot more out of shape now.

Swimming isn’t exactly a new year’s resolution. I’ve been trying to do it regularly for about eighteen months now. I do enjoy it in some ways, but in other ways I find it quite stressful. When I go the pool always seems too crowded. I’m trying to do my lengths, and I always find myself bumping into other people. I find myself getting really territorial as I swim forward, and I’m always thinking “get out of my way!” I get myself in this mindset of seeing everyone else in the pool as my enemy. I find myself cursing new people as they get in the pool, “How dare they?” I think, “We’re crowded enough, they better not come over here.” I’ve noticed myself getting really defensive and aggressive. I start to think of everyone else in the pool as out to get me, and I feel quite hostile.

I know I have this tendency in myself. Sometimes my basic attitude to the world is fear. I can fall into way of thinking and feeling the world is out to get me, it’s a scary place, and I need to defend myself. This isn’t rational – I can rationally believe that I must love the world, that I must love people, but sometimes I catch myself with other feelings – and those feelings come from fear.

I know I need to work on this. I know I need religious practice to keep my heart open.  That’s why I come to church: to practice keeping my heart open. I need to listen to those religious teachers that teach us about this.

The Buddha, as expounded in the Metta Sutta, teaches we should cultivate boundless goodwill… radiating friendliness over the whole world. Jesus, in the sermon on the Mount, said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Here Jesus invites us to be perfect, meaning complete or universal in our love.

There is a Jewish story of a rabbi who gathered his students together one morning before dawn, and then asked, “When do we know night is over and the day has come?”

One student replied, “When we can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a goat?”

Another tried, “When we can see a tree in the distance and tell if it’s a fig tree or apple tree?”

These answers were all wrong. But the rabbi said, “When you look into the face or any woman or man and see them as your sister or brother, then we know that the night is over, and the day has come. If you cannot do this, it is still night, no matter what the time of day.”

This is that universal love, that complete and perfect love for all beings that we could call universalism. That’s part of our tradition as Unitarians, the great religious movement of Universalism that eventually merged with Unitarianism in the United States which is why they are still known today in that country as Unitarian Universalists.

The foundational idea of Universalism was God’s universal love for all beings; and coming from that the idea that such a loving God would not condemn millions of people to everlasting hell. From this understanding of God comes the commitment that our love too has to be universalist. We’re all going to be together in heaven, so we might as well learn how to get along with each other while we’re still on earth.

Jesus said that the sun doesn’t only shine on some people. The sun shines on Muslims and Christians alike. The rain falls on gay people and straight people alike. The rose gives its scent to law abiders and criminals in exactly the same way.

It is impossible for the sun to only shine on some. It is impossible for the rain to be selective about who it falls on. It is impossible for the rose to withhold its scent from people it does not deem worthy enough. That’s what divine love looks like.

 

But it’s difficult, right? You know it’s difficult, I know it’s difficult. How do we cherish all living beings? How does this truth live in our bones, not just our minds? How does it become our nature?

We can’t force it. If we force ourselves to love it will only be phony. What we can do is remove the obstacles that stop us from loving. The Buddha said “Everything we are is the result of what we have thought.” We can become self-aware of this. We can see the truth about ourselves. We can notice those times when we feel ourselves fearful or angry or annoyed. We can think, as Scott Alexander did, “Why do I feel judgmental and disgusted at a large person? It’s because I have issues with my own weight?” Or, “Why do I feel fearful because there’s a young black man in the street? Maybe it’s because of media and television that has taught me to be scared.” Or, “Why does this person just rub me up the wrong way? Maybe because she reminds me of my mother.”

When Scott Alexander realised he was doing this, the spirit of God, the spirit of love, rose up inside of him. He wrote, “In that moment of pure and precious spiritual revelation, a spirit of holiness I can only call God spoke to me with heart-numbing clarity. And I finally began to understand Universalism, viscerally, in my bones.”

When we notice those thought-patterns we’ve built up in our minds, and begin to dismantle them, then the spirit of love, spontaneously arises within us.  Because the illusions we’ve built up in our minds are of our separateness: of the alien-ness and hostility of the world. But when we dismantle those illusions we experience our Oneness, our Unity, our natural and real connection with all beings.

 

But don’t forget that word used in the Metta Sutta: “cultivate.” It’s “cultivate boundless goodwill.” It doesn’t just happen once, it requires constant cultivation, constant spiritual growth to do this.

And we don’t always get it right. We slip back into other ways of thinking and behaving. We need that spiritual practice, those things we do to experience our Unity, on a regular basis. Our worship life, our prayer life together in this community, is the practice of that Unity. The cultivation of Love: the Universal unstoppable Divine Love for all beings, through opening our hearts and minds. That is our purpose here.

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