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Sermons: “May Your Pillow Catch Fire!

"It was still dark that morning in 1942 when the Gestapo rousted from bed the Jews of Bobawa, a Polish village. In the confusion, twelve-year-old Samuel Oliner slipped away and hid on a roof, still in his pajamas. The next afternoon, when he dared to look around, the ghetto was silent. The Jews of Bobawa, murdered that day, by then were lying in a mass grave in the nearby countryside.

"Samuel found some clothes in an empty house and, skirting German patrols and Polish looters, fled to the country. There, after walking for two days, he found his way to the farmhouse of Balwina Piecuch, a peasant woman who had been friendly with his family. Mrs. Piecuch knew, when Samuel knocked on the door, that she would be shot if the Germans found her harboring a Jew. Without hesitation, she took Samuel in.

"Balwina taught Samuel the rituals of Polish Catholic life—how to go to confession, how to pray, the catechism. With her help, Samuel posed as an impoverished Polish stable boy in search of work and a place to live. Thus [it was that] Samuel [Oliner] survived the war.

It is with this moving story that a recent New York Times article on ‘What Makes for Human Goodness” began. Clearly it was Mrs. Piecuch’s uncommon and courageous goodness which snatched this young Jewish boy from certain death. By some estimates, as many as 200,000 Jews, like Samuel Oliner, were saved from the Nazi butchers by good-hearted, non-Jewish rescuers. Now a group of social scientists is reaching, as they put it, "into the cauldron of good and evil that was World War II” to study those "exemplars of human goodness” to see if there are any common identifiable characteristics among those brave and beautiful people who altruistically risked everything to save others. The director of this project, you might be interested to know, is an eminent sociologist from Humboldt State University in California...a man by the name of Samuel Oliner.

"We want to find the common threads among the few who helped,” Oliner writes, we want to know "the differences between the rescuers and those others who might have helped but chose to look the other way.” He and his research team already have interviewed 140 of what another author has called "The Righteous Gentiles,” and are racing against the clock to reach more of these good souls before they die of old age all over Europe. But Dr. Oliner’s project on the sources of human compassion and altruism has been able to establish some preliminary conclusions about the characters of those who selflessly helped. I find them personally fascinating, as well as of vast importance for us, as religious people, who strive to be good.

What the sociologists generally found is that most of those who bravely hid Jews from Hitler’s "Final Solution” share two personal characteristics. First, these were people with a strong sense of personal self-worth… and secondly, they all had a clear set of compassionate human values learned in childhood. Now let’s take each of these two foundations for human goodness in turn, and see what they might have to teach us.

First, I think it should not surprise us that these rescuers of humanity share a strong sense of personal worth and security. For doesn’t it make perfect psychological sense that, generally speaking, one has to feel good about one’s own self before one is able to express much goodness toward others?

This, of course, is not a new idea. For well over two thousand years ago, Jesus framed his enduring gospel of human responsibility and goodness this way: "Love your neighbor AS you love yourself.” Even in his primitive, pre-psychological age, Jesus seems to have intuitively understood that love and respect for self is the spiritual prerequisite for love and respect directed outward to others. In our time, it has been the humanistic psychologists, most noticeably Abraham Maslow and Erich Fromm, who have asserted that self-esteem and personal security are the starting place for all healthy and humane human relationships and societies.

And this makes such perfect practical sense, doesn’t it? For how, I ask, can I be respectful and loving and nurturing toward humanity around me if I despise and loathe the humanness within me? If I don’t respect and revere the manifestation of personhood I know best—namely my own self in this familiar little sheath of skin—how in God’s name will I respect and revere those often odd, and idiosyncratic, human manifestations that all of you are? Clearly love and respect for self creates the core of human affirmation from which love and respect for others springs. It should not surprise us, then, to hear that those compassionate few who saved Jews from certain death valued themselves. From the inside out, they knew of their own human beauty and worth... and therefore could readily see, and want to protect, the human beauty and worth of strangers when the knock came at the door.

And isn’t the opposite also true? When we are unkind or indifferent to human beings around us, doesn’t our unseemly behavior most often have its basis in our own self-negation? Let me be the first to "crawl into the confession booth” this morning. Whenever I catch myself expressing inappropriate anger, mean-spiritedness or cruel indifference towards other individuals or groups, I invariably discover that my lack of compassion says more about the ways in which I don’t feel good about myself, rather than anything objectively objectionable about those to whom my venom is directed. When I unnecessarily hurt, abuse or neglect someone else, it usually arises from some hurt, abused or neglected part of me. My lack of goodness is invariably a reflection of my own pain and inadequacy as a person, rather than caused by anything wrong with those to whom my toxicity is directed.

And I frankly doubt that any of you, dear friends, are much different. When you turn your backs or withhold goodness and decency from some fellow human being, you undoubtedly do so from some wounded, broken, or insecure place in your soul. The authors of these studies on goodness are absolutely correct...the better you feel about your own self, the better you are likely to treat others. The psychological logic of it all is undeniable.

And this truth leads me to the next point the sociologists studying the sources of human goodness have made. People who have shown themselves to be uncommonly altruistic universally had childhoods made secure by warm and nurturing parents—adults who, through their generous expressions of love, helped these individuals to feel positive about themselves and safe in the world. Dr. Erwin Staub of the University of Massachusetts puts it this way, "There is a pattern of child rearing that seems to encourage altruism in later years… a warm and nurturing relationship between parent and child is essential.” And this too makes utter psychological sense to us, doesn’t it? For surely it follows that if our parents pass on to us a strong sense of our own personal worth and dignity that we will naturally be inclined to confirm and celebrate the human worth and dignity of others—from that core of happy wholeness and health.

And this also, unfortunately, seems supported by negative example in our everyday experience. Whenever you read a psychological study of some heinous murderer and violent sociopath, you find that, almost to the last man and woman, these hurtful people had unhappy, insecure, and non-nurturing childhoods. Those who are hurt early often grow up later to hurt others. Recent studies reveal that child abusers are, almost always, people who themselves were abused when young (though blessedly many who were abused are able to healthfully move past those hurtful patterns).

And thus we arrive at a truth for all adults that is as important as it is obvious...if we want our children, and the next human generation, to act compassionately and respectfully toward one another, we must show them, by the living example of our thoughts, words and deeds, that they are loved and respected. The only way our young truly learn that human beings deserve to be treated gently and humanely is by receiving that decent treatment themselves. It seems obvious from these studies that if we are to have a better world, where people are spontaneously treated with compassion and concern, we must first and foremost instill in our children an appropriate sense of their own self-worth, dignity and value.

But as Oliner and the other social scientists studying human goodness are quick to point out, a healthy sense of personal worth developed in childhood is not in-and-of-itself a sufficient foundation for altruism and goodness. For they have concluded that the second "common thread” they discovered in those compassionate heroes of the Holocaust is just as indispensable as the first—namely that all these "good” people possessed a personal set of compassionate values which had been passed on to them by their parents.

Dr. Staub concludes that while a warm and nurturing relationship between parent and child is "essential” for altruism, it nonetheless, and now I quote, "must be coupled with compassionate values,” which provide the individual with the moral direction and strength to help others, even when it comes at great danger or cost to themselves. In another study of human goodness and compassion, Dr. Zahn Waxler agrees that it is "The nurturant but moralizing parent who arouses the child to concerned action, the parent who is nurturing but not permissive, in that they have a clear set of moral and behavioral expectations for the child.”

Now please understand that Dr. Waxler and the others are not talking about "moralistic” parents here, who rant and rave for hours on end at their kids about what is right and wrong. What they are talking about are genuinely moral parents who, by everyday example, teach clear moral values and compassionate behavior. As Harvey Hornstein puts it in his fascinating little book Cruelty and Kindness, children who become humane adults do so "because they once had opportunities to observe loving caretakers being concerned about the welfare of other human beings... [they learn goodness, quite simply,] by example.” And Dr. Perry London, who did his own study of the rescuers of Jews during World War II, adds that these human heroes had "intense identification with a parental model of moral conduct.”

It seems, then, to be as Dr. Hornstein suggests. "If the sins of fathers and mothers are visited upon their children, then so [too] are their good deeds.” It is surely as I always say to the parents of infants during ceremonies of naming and dedication, as I charge them to their awesome parental responsibilities: "[The parents’] goodness becomes the child’s goodness; their evil the child’s evil… and also their wisdom, courage, openness, and the adventure of their beliefs.”

So all of these diverse insights about the genesis of goodness in individual human beings says, give or take, the same thing: children pick up compassionate values for adulthood by seeing those values lived out by their adult caretakers...and they must be modeled, not just mouthed, if they are to really become enduring realities in the personalities of the young. It’s that simple. Unitarian bard Ralph Waldo Emerson understood this awesome moral responsibility of adulthood when he declared in the middle of the last century, "The gods we worship write their names on our faces, be sure of that. And a man [or woman] will worship something—have no doubt about that either. He [or she] may think that [this] tribute is paid in secret, in the dark recesses of the heart—but it will out. That which dominates [our] imagination and thought will determine [our] life and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.”

And so all of us who ever touch the lives of children—and that is all of us, for parenting is a responsibility in which all adults share—must realize the power and importance of our everyday example. More than what we say we believe, it’s how we live—how good and loving we are to other human beings who share this journey called life with us—that has a large and lasting impact on those young folks who are so scrupulously watching. And oh how attentively they watch, don’t they? They don’t miss a trick or any of our hypocrisies, do they? Their "crap detectors” are working full blast all the time!

And don’t fool yourselves into thinking your everyday moral actions are less important—we are the shapers and molders of the next generation, and the quality of our deeds will go a long way toward deciding the quality of the human future!

All right… all these observations about the absolute importance of adult modeling of human compassion and goodness surely make sense to us—we have heard it all before. But I fear I’ve gotten ahead of myself in this discussion on the sources of human goodness, for I have not yet suggested just where the basic impulse to treat others compassionately comes from! I must ask, ‘When all is said and done, what fundamental spiritual attitude of the human heart gives birth to goodness?” I am shifting from psychology to spirituality now. Well, I suppose there are any number of respectable answers for so vast and important a question, especially among free-thinking Unitarian Universalists, but I personally most resonate to Harvey Hornstein’s strikingly simple answer. He suggests that what makes for altruism and compassion in our world is people passionately feeling their fundamental connectedness with other human beings. We are good to those around us when we know, deep down to the centers of our trembling hearts, that they belong beautifully and irretrievably to us as fellow human beings on this holy and tender planet earth. Hornstein believes that human compassion and goodness are fundamentally given birth in our world through people who spiritually feel, and now I use his nomenclature, the "bonds of we” rather than the "barriers of them.”

This hopeful human idea, which understands the importance of seeing the human connectors rather than the dividers, resonates beautifully with my understanding of the soul of our noble religion. For lying at the compassionate center of Unitarian Universalism is the astounding idea that every man, woman, and child on earth is a precious part of a family...the human family of universal belonging and mutual responsibility. Our liberal faith has a vision of humanity’s indissolvable oneness. And there is no avoiding it: if we take our Unitarian Universalism to heart, it is up to each one of us to treatevery member of our family with just as much kindness, justice and respect as we can.

Some religions, in this privatistic and selfish age, say little more than "Look out for ‘good old number 1'...work on your own personal salvation...get yourself to heaven, and never mind the rest of struggling humanity.” Such religion, dominated as it is by the goal of personal salvation, is little more, in my view, than spiritual narcissism, a selfish path of the heart that refuses to hear the crying demands for goodness and justice that lie beyond the immediate little sphere of self and family. Many are the tribal religions which cast the world into "us” versus "them” struggles. Sadly, in our time, many are the religions of individualism and isolation which free the believer from worldwide human responsibility.

But ours (thank God) is a relational religion—a religion that would have us aware and alive to the irreducible oneness that exists between ourselves and human beings everywhere, a religion that calls us into close, caring, and compassionate communion with people of all kinds and colors, no matter how different from us they might at first seem. Ours is a faith that has always dreamt of people everywhere becoming like family—one humanity relating in evermore intricate patterns of compassion and respect.

Unitarian Universalism is the demand to be gently and responsibly related to life and persons around you. And this church knows, with Hornstein and other global thinkers, that genuine compassion for others is best and most beautifully born in the cockles of the human heart which feels those indissoluble connections, the wondrous oneness. And we will only be genuinely good to one another when we know, by God, that every last human person with whom we share life on this fragile little planet is preciously a part of my family, my tribe, my country, me by God, a part of me!

There is a wonderful Hasidic tale, told by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, which I feel makes the reality and importance of our human connectedness with one another come to life. The story goes that, "A young man in Jerusalem wanted to visit Rome, (which was then the ruling capital of Western Civilization...a very strange and different place from Jewish Jerusalem). His mother protested (as worrying mothers are wont to do) and asked him ‘How will you eat? Where will you sleep?’ He didn’t have any answers, yet he still wanted to go on his adventure to Rome. His Mother finally relented but said, ‘I’m sure you will find food, but for sleep, for sleep you must take this pillow. At night, go outside the walls of Rome and put your head on this pillow, and you will have rest.’ The son did as she asked, and each night, after enjoying the sights, the sounds, the carnivals of Rome, he would leave that city and take his pillow and find sleep in the countryside. But one night, right before falling asleep, his pillow caught fire! Why? Because that night the temple in Jerusalem burned.”

Wiesel goes on to explain that in his tradition, no member of the widely scattered Jewish community lives in isolation. On a very real mystical level, what happens to one Jew happens to all Jews, for they are spiritually and mystically bound together in one being, one indissoluble community. It was the precious bonds of human community and connectedness which set fire to the boy’s pillow, and kept him awake and alive to that which troubled his brothers and sisters back in Jerusalem.

What I am saying to you is, as it was with the ancient tribe of Israel, so too it now must be with the worldwide tribe of humanity—­the tribe to which all of us so irrevocably and preciously belong. Surely all liberal religious thinkers realize how very rapidly our human world is shrinking. We live now in that global village Marshall MacLuhan described, where all humanity is being evermore intricately woven together in an interdependent web of life and being. The various peoples and nations of humanity can no longer afford to imagine themselves separated and distinct from one another. If we are to survive on this tiny blue-green spaceship earth, a new global consciousness of our inter-relatedness must quickly be brought to birth, and humanity must begin learning how to live together as an interdependent family, with peace and understanding flowing into every corner of the globe. And that new consciousness of human connectedness and responsibility begins, don’t you see, with human hearts able to see and celebrate the bonds of "we,” rather than the brutalizing barriers of "them.”

Now please believe me, I have no illusions about how hard and long will be the battle for this spiritual transformation toward genuine human oneness. We live, you and I, in terribly tribal times. It is with heavy heart that I realize that many of our world’s leaders, who currently dominate geo-political affairs, routinely think in parochial and tribal terms. Many are the archaic, inoperative worldviews which slice up the globe into isolated camps of "we” versus "them.” Warfare, terrorism, the arms race, famine, medical catastrophes like AIDS, are all allowed to prosper in the darkness of humanity’s divisive and little thinking.

This spring, we witnessed one of the most heinous expressions of the evils of tribalism of the twentieth century. I was at a Ramada Inn traveling, watching the evening news when the horrible images poured out of the television, and suddenly I found tears streaming down my face. There before me were the obscene newsreel pictures—you probably all saw it—of that Kurdish father and child, dead at the doorsill, murdered by Iraqi poison gas that day. And you could see, by the configuration of their bodies, that the father had desperately tried to protect his daughter from this war crime that no nation has committed since World War II... but had failed. We must say to the Iraqis and Iranians and all others who would slaughter innocent human beings in such evil ways, "No...it is not acceptable...it is not acceptable...it is not acceptable! We will not trade with you, have an embassy on your soil, until you stop this heinous, evil behavior.” Of all the many spiritual responsibilities that fall to us as Unitarian Universalists, none is more pressing than that of helping humanity to realize its holy interdependence, its indissoluble oneness.

I want my religion, I want my Unitarian Universalist faith, to call upon me to ever enlarge the capacity of my heart, to challenge me toward goodness and mercy even when it comes at great personal cost. I want a faith which teaches my soul to organically feel the joy and sorrow of others, which reminds me of my inescapable responsibility to love and serve my far-flung, often-difficult family. I want a church which refuses to let me morally and spiritually separate myself from the trials and tribulations of my global brothers and sisters wherever and however I find them. I want a faith, if you will, that burns the pillow of my heart and keeps me awake, by God, whenever there is as much as one human being somewhere in need of my compassion or care.

So may your pillow catch fire, dear Unitarian Universalist friends, when the evening news flashes into your living rooms the images of the starving fly-covered Ethiopian children dying in their mothers’ arms; then may your pillow catch fire! May your pillow catch fire whenever some despairing bag lady spends another lonely night in some filthy urine-soaked alleyway; then may your pillow catch fire! May your pillow catch fire every time a young man with AIDS is dying alone in your neighborhood because nobody cares; then may your pillow catch fire! May your pillow catch fire every time a minority child from the poor side of town is bitten on the face by a rat because this society doesn’t care enough to provide adequate and humane housing; then may your pillow catch fire! May your pillow catch fire every time one of your neighbors is sick or aggrieved and needs the simple healing of your holy touch; then may your pillow catch fire! May your pillow catch fire every time there is some simple human kindness waiting for you (yes, you )—no one else, you to bring to birth. May the pillows of your pulsating hearts evermore catch fire, for it is ever and always as Universalist poet Carl Sandburg sang at the very end of his collected poems:

There is only one horse on the earth,
and his name is All Horses.

There is only one bird in the air,
and her name is All Wings.

There is only one fish in the sea,
and the fish’s name is All Fins.

There is only man in the world,
and his name is All Men.

There is only one woman in the world,
and her name is All Women.

There is only one child in the world,
and the child’s name is All Children.

There is only one maker in the world,
and that maker’s children cover the earth,
and they are named All God’s Children.

That’s us, dear friends, that’s us!

Amen.

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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