Open the Heart and the Mind Follows

While it may seem otherwise, especially with the way we report our news, people can and do change. These changes come when our minds are open, and our minds are open when our hearts are open. And we know how to open our hearts. We do that, of course, with love.

I’ve often wondered if maybe we don’t have it in us to change fundamentally – to change our minds, that is. We get so stuck and stubborn about being right, so resistant to consider that we might not be seeing things clearly or accurately, that we’re unwilling to consider another perspective. We like to be right and avoid being wrong, often regardless of the cost. But sometimes, the discovery that we’ve been wrong can be really great news. It can mean that our fear and anger are not needed, and that Love is prevailing.

Too often our minds run the show. When our minds are closed—by fear, or anger, or ignorance, we get stuck in our ways. But when our heart is open, we’re more willing to open our minds, because we’re unafraid.

Several years ago, Kevin and I spent a week at a youth leadership camp in rural Texas. Kevin did a keynote, I facilitated a workshop, and we both served as family group advisers. As we prepared to travel down there, Kevin told me about this area we were going, where he’d spent a few summers in his early 20s. This is the town where the KKK was extraordinarily active in decades past. This is the the same area as the camp where Kevin worked summers in college, where he eventually realized that whenever an African American staff camp counselor arrived, he would immediately find himself assigned to work in the kitchen, if not dismissed. At meal times, among the many varied and often silly songs and rhymes the campers would recite, Kevin heard them shout nightly, “1-2-3, Robert E Lee! 3-2-1, The South should’ve won!”  The same region where on at least one summer night each year, Kevin saw them set a cross on fire, and he was told that no, it didn’t mean what he thought it meant… it was just tradition. And they did not take kindly to Kevin asking questions.

With this background, I was not excited to get there. And although the memories Kevin shared were over 20 years old, I was nervous about being there openly as a couple with Kevin. We weren’t married yet at the time, but everyone knew we were together, and it didn’t occur to me to try to hide it. What would we see? So I arrived on guard, assuming, these people are ignorant, racist, homophobic, and I’m going to have to find a way to stand my ground, and speak up if confronted by hatred.

On the road into the hill country, we pulled up in front of a small general store. “I remember this place!” Kevin said. We got out to buy some bottles of water and some snacks. And as we walked toward the door, we paused to look at a grouping of bills and notices. There in the center of this bulletin board in red rural Texas was flyer for a local chapter of PFLAG. It wasn’t brand new. It had been there a while, which means no one had taken it down.“I can’t believe that’s there,” Kevin said. “That’s so great. That’s incredible.”

We had a great time at the camp. The kids were terrific, the staff was dedicated, kind, and respectful. None of my fears materialized there. Where I had expected judgement, or a sense that we were being at best respectfully “tolerated”, we found instead that everyone seemed delighted that we were there.

At the end of the week, they had a dance night. There was a hall for the kids, and an adjacent room where most of the adults and staff congregated for snacks and music and dancing. During a slow song, Kevin and I danced together. I felt a little self-conscious about that. Who’s watching? What are they thinking? Are they whispering about us?

A little while later, one of the other staff people approached Kevin. He said, “My parents were very active and high up in the Arian Nation. I was taught to hate people like you. Tonight, I stood here and watched you two dance together, and I thought it was beautiful.”

Before I realized that I was gay, I tried really hard to be what I thought I was supposed to be. For a time that included going along with what I thought I was supposed to say and think. I remember one day, I was riding in car with my best friend, Dorothy. We were just out of high school. And I don’t know how or why it came up, but we were talking about gays and lesbians and I said (I remember this so clearly) I “The thought of two men being together it just makes me sick.” I did not really feel that way at all., but I thought I “should.” I had heard other people say that, and I was still deep in denial about my orientation. But Dot would have none of it. She called me out immediately. “Well, I think it’s beautiful!” she said. 

I knew she was right. It broke through something that had kind of hardened over me. I said to her right then and there, “You know, you’re right. I shouldn’t have said that. You’re right.” It did not break through my denial (and in fact… I went on to marry Dorothy, which is a story for another day). But God, I admired her so much for speaking up. She always spoke from the heart, and it was always with kindness and love first – more so than anyone else I’d ever met up that point. She was fiercely loving. She got into my head by going through the heart.

My husband, Kevin, is a professional speaker. He talks about love and kindness. He tells jokes and funny stories. He entertains people, and in the process he aims to open hearts and minds, and encourage people to choose to love. It’s a good gig. He loves it, and I love working with him.

A few years ago, I was with Kevin in a town outside Atlanta. On the way there, Kevin told me that he’d spoken in this town at a specific conference for many consecutive years, and that had stopped when someone told a meeting planner that Kevin was gay. Now here we were again, same town, different conference. Kevin delivered a keynote for a few hundred adults who work with kids. It went really well, and after that he presented a diversity workshop for 60 or so people.

That was interesting to watch. In a conference room at the hotel, this apparent “old white guy” stood in front of an audience of about 70% African Americans to talk about diversity, and to facilitate an experience called Aspects of Identity. It was moving. People were shaken and stirred, as they usually are from the experience. The audience laughed and applauded Kevin’s stories, and an hour later they were filing out.

I like to hang out in the back, like a roadie, observing. And it’s typical for me to see a handful of people linger after a program to say hello to Kevin, to shake his hand or take a selfie. That day, the last such person was a woman about my age. From the back of the room, I saw Kevin hug her.

“Wait, wait,” she said. Kevin’s a hugger. It’s a good trait, and people often want to hug him, but maybe he jumped the gun a little this time. But she wasn’t upset.

“I wanted to tell you,” she said, “I really enjoyed your keynote, and this workshop, and I thought it was all wonderful. And then you referred to this young man as your husband and I… I didn’t like your program anymore. I thought, I don’t like any of this, in fact, I changed my mind: I didn’t really like your keynote either, and I just shut down. I couldn’t listen to you anymore. But I was in the middle of a row, and I couldn’t leave, so I felt stuck there, and I didn’t want to be here anymore. So I prayed. And God said to me, ‘Here is where you change.’ And I realized I have been wrong to judge you. I never thought I could accept gay people, and when you talked about acceptance and love, I… heard it in a way that I have never heard before.”

It was a beautiful moment. We talked about it as we went back to our room, where we packed up our suitcases. It was early afternoon now, and we were going to head back toward Atlanta for our flight. While we were putting our suitcases in the rental, a car pulled up and stopped in the street beside us, and the man driving said, “Are you the keynote speaker?”

Kevin said he was, and approached the car.

“Well, I’ve got to tell you, you did something to my wife. She’s not a talker, and she was at your keynote yesterday, and she came home talking, she went to bed talking, and she woke up talking. We have a young grandson that we have not seen in a while. My wife has not been on speaking terms with our daughter because our grandson is transgender, and our daughter supports him in his gender identity. I’ve been kind of ok with it, but my wife has really had a hard time. She said you talked about your daughter? How she came to live with you as a boy, but identified as a girl and… my wife called our daughter and now we have dinner plans with them. She wants to reconcile. Thank you.”

On a regular basis, Kevin and I get to see that when we touch the heart, we reach also the mind, and we do so way more effectively than when we try to get through purely on the level of mind.

People do have dramatic changes of heart. Minds do open. Love does perform miracles. And what we do, the kindness we show each other, and our dedication to authenticity, to speaking our truth with love, matters. It matters. It makes real, positive, important changes in the world, even when we don’t get to see the changes… because every change of heart changes the world.

Adventures in Heresy

For most of my life, I didn’t have a close relationship with my father. But in my younger years I enjoyed spending time with him. I remember the smell of his workshop, our garage: the scents of motor oil, dirt, dampness, and the distinct odor of metal. And the images of it: those banged-up trash cans to my right as I walked in, next to the big overhead door, open in warm weather, closed in cold; half of the two-car bay empty but for tools and stuff lying on the cement floor, the other half occupied by an old truck I’m sure he tinkered on for years, a truck I don’t think I ever saw run. The room was lit by fluorescents and natural light filtered through dusty windows onto cracked pegboard walls holding tools over a workbench with its jars and coffee cans of unsorted screws, nails, and bolts, and my father’s breakfast beer, fizzing by the radio speaker. It was like Sanford and Son, but without the catchy theme music.

One day in the garage, he told me about his work in a tone that made clear he had no love for it. “I crawl into a hole and stare a light all day. Then I come home.” He was a welder, and on weekends he found ways to put his main vocational skill to use at home. He had a welder at home, and would use it on our old cars and wherever else it was useful. The first time I saw him welding, he warned me, “Don’t look at the light—you’ll go blind.”

Dad wasn’t exaggerating about the danger of staring into the light. Over the years, I did glimpse at it a few times, deliberately or accidentally, and even from yards away it caused a dull ache in the center of my skull. The brightness, apparently, could cause permanent damage and even blindness, so he wore a shield over his head and face with a small, nearly opaque rectangle to see through.

He reached into a tool box. “You have to look through this,” he said, and gave me a piece of glass like the one in his face shield, so black I could see nothing through it at all. But when he started working again, I saw the glow, still intense but not painful, and a shower of sparks. This was the light he looked at for hours on end, mending and building ships and submarines at a job he disliked to support his family.

I like Sunday mornings. I get to sleep in. When our travel schedule allows, I get to attend a church service where everyone is so nice and welcoming, and the music is great, and the message is interesting and not too long.

I didn’t always enjoy Sunday mornings, though. When I was young, I would wake up in the room I shared with my older brother to the sound of a hateful voice (it sounded hateful to me). On any given Sunday, I’d wake to the sound of an angry sermon. Dad favored Jerry Fallwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Vernon McGee, and their voices echoed down the hall from the kitchen into my room. My father turned the volume of the radio or TV up high so he could hear it wherever he went in the house. Many Sunday mornings he wasn’t even in the house when I woke up, but he had the sermon on so he could hear it if he stepped inside from the garage where a second radio or TV blared the same broadcast. I grew to really dislike that sound, but somehow it comforted him. I think Sundays were his favorite downtime.

I grew up Catholic, but my dad rarely went to mass with us, and when he did he brought his Bible and didn’t pay attention. Mass bored me. I believed in God, and I just figured… God likes boring stuff. And I believed what happened in mass was a miracle — or magic, at least, with the whole bread into body of Christ thing. And then eating it… I wondered does this make us cannibals? The devout, I learned, do not appreciate that question.

I went to Catholic school taught by nuns, who offered well-meaning but terrible council on a range of subjects. My favorite, from a visiting nun lecturer: “You may be asking yourself why I, a celibate, should be teaching you about sex. But think of it this way: If you had cancer, you wouldn’t tell your doctor he couldn’t treat you because he doesn’t have cancer.”

And can anyone explain all the felt? Remember the felt boards? I’ve heard from non-Catholic friends that their churches were also big on felt. Walls or cardboard covered in felt to which you could stick other pieces of cookie-cutter felt. Felt Mary,, felt Joseph, felt crosses, and entire felt landscapes, a cornucopia of iconography rendered lovingly in felt. Eventually I got it: obviously Jesus loves felt.

At church, I fidgeted in the pew, my butt itching from sitting on the hard bench, watching the clock, waiting for it to be over. And while the priest droned on, blah blah blah — I couldn’t pay attention even when I tried — I talked to God. I prayed constantly, even outside of church. And I mean that literally: constantly. Every thought passing through my mind I addressed to God, like an ongoing conversation. The subject of a thought made no difference. When I felt thirsty, I would think, Dear God, I’m going to get a glass of water. In my mind, I spoke all of my observations, feelings, desires, impressions, fears, questions – everything – to God, who I believed listened to my every thought. And I felt comfort. I felt safe, and held, and protected, and valued. I felt loved.

But this God, I was taught to believe, was the same one that my father’s favorite evangelical preachers claimed to be experts on. And in their sermons, they were so angry, so self-righteous in their convictions. They seemed always to be talking about hell, about damnation, fire, and sin. They believed the Bible to be the literal word of God, and they by God were here to tell us what to believe, what to think, and how to live. I felt no love in their preaching, only fear and judgment. They spoke of “the fear of God” as a virtue to be clung to. And in spite of my resistance, their message sunk in.

Eventually, I understood that if it was true that they had this understanding, that this religion was the One True Faith, that God was judging me and keeping a tally, and that sinners would be cast into Hell… then there was no hope for me. I do not conform, because I cannot believe what I have been told I must.

This means that I am a heretic. A heretic is a baptized Roman Catholic who willfully and consistently rejects any article of faith. “Willfully and consistently.” Yeah, that’s right in the money. More generally, a heretic is a person holding an opinion at odds with what is generally accepted.

I know in church circles heresy is something to be shunned, it’s not a word one embraces.  I like the word. I also like the words discombobulated, gargoyle, and nougat. But “heretic” I really like, less for its sound than its meaning. It’s a much more powerful word than “nonconformist.”

“Heretic” comes from a Greek word meaning “able to choose,” and choosing one’s own beliefs was —and still is — a practice that many powerful religious and political leaders find objectionable. They would much prefer that we all believe what we are instructed to believe, so much so that some have been known, both in the past and in the present, to threaten scary eternal punishment, or mete out earthly penalties—to this day, in some places in the world, people are fired, ostracized, shamed, beaten, tortured, and even killed for the audacity of choosing one’s own beliefs.

It is strange to me that in the church in which I was raised – and I realize this is an extreme example – I could do anything, commit literally any sin, and still be welcome in the church, still be given the church’s stamp of approval and entry into heaven if I believed and did the proper rituals. On the other hand, I could lead a life as sinless and flawless and Christ Himself, but if I were to publicly declare my disbelief in accepted dogma, I would be excommunicated.

It took me a long, long time to shake the belief that because I can’t change who I am that I am worthless. I don’t believe that anymore. What I do believe in is the power of Love. I value kindness, and charity, and sharing. I value freedom of thought, and unfettered scholarship, and science, and peace, and compromise, and negotiation, and respect, and compassion, and responsibility, and fairness, and equality.

I believe that it’s better to give, knowing that some without genuine need will “take advantage” than to not give and allow people to go hungry or uncared for.

I believe in erring on the side of kindness and compassion.

I believe in taking care of the planet; in the Golden Rule; and that we are all in this together.

These values and beliefs do not make me a heretic. Here is what does: I don’t believe in Hell or eternal judgment. I think the idea that God would be offended by disbelief is ludicrous. And I don’t believe in the devil as an entity seeking to drag us all into damnation. And because I know that the Bible was written and assembled by men with agendas, I cannot believe for a second that it is the literal word of God.

It seems to me that the stories of the Bible are not meant to communicate history; they are meant to transmit faith. The story is not the message; it is the vehicle for the delivery of the message.

In my understanding, the Jesus depicted in the gospels invites us to open our hearts and minds to the Love of God. Because he is human, he embodies an archetype that we can identify with and emulate. An archetype is a symbol; a symbol represents something, points to an idea. But as the great world religions demonstrate, we can become so enamored, so identified with and focused upon a symbol that we can lose site of thing to which it points.

I left the church when I came to recognize that its love was inherently conditional. I returned when I found a community that reaffirms not just in word but in action and in practice that God is Love; where the message of Love is more important than the system that delivers it; and no religion has a monopoly on the love of God.

I’m sure my father wouldn’t have liked the services here because they’re not based in “Scripture,” which he seemed to value more than anything else in his faith. He accepted without question the notion of God as a being we must all fear. But then again, he spent a significant chunk of his life looking out at the world through a very dark lens.

He had good reason to wear that shield when he was working, so he wouldn’t be blinded or burned. It offered real protection. And those sermons he studied also shielded him. They limited his view of the world and that was all he wanted to see. He even told me once, when I challenged the idea that we should unquestioningly accept these preachers interpretation of the Bible, that we were not meant to interpret it ourselves, that we weren’t qualified, that we could get it wrong, so we must be obedient, and anything else would be heresy.

I’m proud to be a heretic, to think for myself. I am happy to be a part of my new church community, because there the message I receive says, “We welcome Christians, and Buddhists, and atheists, and Muslims, and Jews, and all others, exactly as you are. Let us cultivate a community together, based on our shared values of compassion, respect, kindness, and goodwill. Let’s look out for each other. Let’s be responsible. And let’s share ideas about how the power of Love can transform our lives.”