Opening the Heart

17944-bright-red-heart-shaped-diamondWe all know, of course, that “heart” refers to the organ in our chests that performs the essential function of keeping the blood moving around our bodies.  We are also probably aware that the word “heart” is used to talk about many things that have nothing to do with that essential organ.  In fact, when the word “heart” is used in the Bible – or in any of the world’s great sacred texts – it is almost always used in this second sense: to speak of something that has nothing to do with our biological functioning.

In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the word “heart” occurs 931 times (including variations on that word, such as “whole-heartedly”).   While I will not claim to have closely examined every one of these occurrences, a quick review of the verses in question reveals that, indeed, the Bible seldom uses the word “heart” to refer to the organ in our chests.

Perhaps the best way to describe the use of the heart in the Bible and other sacred texts is to say that it refers to a person’s center, to the deepest, truest part of us.   One dictionary definition puts it this way:  “the vital center and source of one’s being”.  The use of the term “heart” in this way speaks to something that is authentic in human experience, which is why the term appears so frequently in sacred texts and why we continue to use it in the same way today.  Yet, heart as the “vital center and source of one’s being” is not something that we can locate in the body or subject to any sort of analysis.   Still, most people I know have a sense that speaking of the heart points to something real about them and their experience.

So, why am I going on about the word “heart” in it’s non-biological sense?  Because I think it has much to do with the way we approach the religious dimension of our lives.   For generations, people understood that religion – and this is really true of all the various religious traditions – was attempting to speak to something that was authentic in human experience but which was difficult to express directly.  Religion has always sought to draw human beings deeper into the mystery and meaning of our own existence, and to connect us to the mystery and meaning of the larger universe.  Religion seeks to draw us into our hearts – that is, into the vital center and source of our being.  And, by so doing, to draw us into The Heart:  the vital center and source of Being Itself.

These connections to heart and Heart which the religious traditions make for us are not connections that can really be objectively examined.  These connections are formed and unfold within a realm of human experience with which science is not really concerned, in part because science really has no way to access it.  And yet, people who have taken their spiritual journeys seriously and discovered a deepening connection with heart and Heart know that they have discovered something real, something authentic, something that truly does dwell at the center of the human experience.   Our various religious traditions are all, at their roots, attempts to describe this experience, to name it for ourselves, and to try to provide a path that others might follow into their own hearts.

Too often, religious people and institutions don’t take seriously this opening of the heart.  Too often, we allow religion to settle into a shadow or caricature of its true self, choosing to focus our energies on the externals of religious life or institutions, or on the finer points of belief.  We turn religion into a moralistic framework with which to torment ourselves or others.  We settle for a God who has not been met in the heart, but is instead the projection of human fear, narrowness, and prejudice.

It is not surprising, when you think about it, that we allow religion devolve into such a monstrosity.  After all, we allow ourselves to do the same thing:  rather than spending the time and doing the inner work necessary to break through all our falsity to discover our true selves revealed in the heart, we devote tremendous energy into building up our false selves, reenforcing our egos.  We allow our own humanity, and the humanity of others, to become a caricature of what humanity can be.

Yet, for all of this, at the heart of our religious traditions are still preserved pathways that will lead us to heart and Heart, if only we are willing to take them.  Generations of mystics from all of the world’s religions have made this journey.  As they have sought to share something of their experience, they have inevitably done so with reference to the particular tradition to which they belong.  And yet there is a surprising convergence across all these various experiences with regard to the essential insights that have emerged from these encounters with heart and Heart.

The examples of these saints and mystics can encourage us in our journey.  And, in fact, “encourage” is just the right word:  it literally means “to hearten”.   Indeed, to live with courage is to live with heart.  And spiritual courage can move us out of caricatured religion and into the heart of spirituality.

Racism in America?

stopracismEvents of recent weeks have generated a great deal of discussion about racism in America.  Some have opined that racism isn’t really a part of American life anymore, and that claims of racism as a factor in a given circumstance are nothing more than attempts to use an emotionally charged term to cover over something else.   A number of (white) pundits were highly critical of President Obama’s statement this past Friday about the George Zimmerman verdict and racial issues in America, complaining that racism had nothing to do with the Zimmerman case, that racism is on the decline in America, or referring to him as “Racist in Chief” and complaining that he was attempting to foment racism and further divide the country with his remarks.  Some pointed to the fact that Obama is the President as evidence that racism was no longer a factor in American life.

While I have no doubt that racism continues to cast a shadow across the American landscape, I don’t really have any interest in taking up the arguments about whether racism was a factor in the Zimmerman verdict, or the degree to which racism is a factor in any other circumstance where it may be alleged.  But I would like to explore a bit about who should get to say whether racism is a reality or not.

If we who are Christian think about our sacred texts, we find that very often, God appears in those texts as having a special concern with the minority or the marginalized.  It is, in fact, a rather powerful theme that runs through the Bible, weaving its way through both the Old and New Testaments.  The story that became the foundational story for the Jewish people is, after all, a story about a people who had been enslaved by a more powerful race, and due to their suffering, became the focus of a divinely initiated act of liberation.  The Jewish law was careful to make provision for the poor and disadvantaged, even if the people of Israel did not always live up to that ideal.  And when they did not, prophets arose to remind them of their obligations to those who were not empowered.  In the New Testament, Jesus focuses much of his ministry on those who were marginalized and discriminated against by their society.  God appears in much of the biblical tradition as the One who champions the disempowered, and who calls on those who are empowered to look upon the disadvantaged with compassion and to act in ways that transform society so that the disadvantaged might find justice.

What emerges across the biblical literature is an important truth:  that God speaks for the disadvantaged, the minority, because those in power are unable or unwilling to do so, and because those in power are unable or unwilling to see the true condition of the marginalized.  And that is the way it most often is with those who are privileged, who are empowered and advantaged (which includes me):  we do not see the true condition of the disempowered, either because we somehow are unable to do so or because we do not wish to.  And so, in today’s America, we come to a place where various (mostly white) pundits, anointed by the media as having some sort of wisdom, parade across our TV and computer screens debating the reality of racism in America.

In my humble opinion, they would do well to be quiet.  Because the only people who are really qualified to speak about the continuing reality of racism in America are those who experience it.  Those of us who belong to the empowered class, who have never experienced a moment of racial discrimination in our lives, can’t get beyond an abstract and theoretical discussion.  We do not know what it is like to be part of a racial minority in this country.  We cannot get inside that experience.  We cannot know the world from their point of view.

But, we can learn from them.  We can listen to their experience, and instead of judging it or reinterpreting it or somehow discounting it, we can receive it as an authentic testimony about what their lives are like.  Those of us who seek to be followers of Jesus have a sacred obligation to do just that, as the biblical tradition in general and the Christian tradition in particular makes abundantly clear.  If God seeks to give a voice to the disempowered, then we have an obligation to listen to that voice.  And it is the voice of the disempowered that will tell us about the realities of racism in America.  Not the voices of the empowered class who have never experienced it.

The Limits of Law

imagesThere was a huge outburst of emotion this past weekend as the jury in the George Zimmerman case handed down its verdict of “Not Guilty”, absolving Mr. Zimmerman of any responsibility for the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager.  While I’m sure that there are some people who favored the verdict, the bulk of the reaction seems to be outrage that the man who admitted killing Trayvon, though, he argued, in self defense, was not being held accountable for it.  How, so many have wondered, is it possible that an unarmed young man was killed, and no one is legally responsible?

It is tempting, but difficult, to try to put ourselves in the place of the jury.  In our system, if there is any room for reasonable doubt in a case like this, then the jury is required to acquit the defendant.   In this case, the jurors who listened to the testimony and the presentation of the cases must have concluded that there was some room for doubt, and did what the law requires them to do in such a case.

This trial demonstrates the limits of law.  Most of the time, I think, the law and the legal system that embodies it works the way it is supposed to work, accurately holding people who have committed crimes responsible for what they have done.  It is nevertheless true, however, that in the history of our jurisprudence, many innocent people have been wrongly convicted, and if that is true, then it stands to reason that a number of guilty people have gone free.  Human systems are never perfect, and the legal system is no exception.

This past Sunday, in many churches, the story of the Good Samaritan was the Gospel reading for the day. It is a story, as one preacher pointed out, that tends to invite our immediate judgment on the people who crossed the street so as to avoid encountering, and having to deal with, the man who had been left beaten on the side of the road by unknown robbers.  Naturally, we wonder how they could have been so heartless.   As that same preacher also pointed out, however, there is another question that the story should invite but which we often don’t consider.  And that is this:  how is it that the robbers were able to attack the man in the first place?  What sort of people are these, who would do such a thing?  And what sort of a society produces such people?

The natural reaction of probably most people in this country, and even around the world, to the verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial is to wonder how the jury could possibly have taken the role of those in the Good Samaritan story who crossed the street.  How could this jury have passed the body of Trayvon Martin and not held his killer responsible?  For me, however, the more important question has nothing to do with the jury, but with the incident that brought that jury together.  How is it that we have a society in which an unarmed teenager can get shot by an armed citizen on his way home?  What is it in Mr. Zimmerman’s life that allows him to become so overwhelmed by fear of another, much younger human being that he feels justified to kill that person?  And, if Trayvon Martin had not been black, would events have unfolded differently that night?

Last week, I wrote about the Paula Deen controversy, and I suggested that what we tended to miss in our response to that controversy was the opportunity it provided to us to search our own hearts and souls.  The Zimmerman verdict — a far more serious matter — provides us with the same opportunity to search not only ourselves, but the heart and soul of our society, as well, and to ask if this is the kind of world we want to live in?  Is this the sort of society we want?  This case asks us hard questions about violence and racism in our culture, and how we deal with them — or don’t.

In the New Testament, there is a lot of discussion about law, particularly in the letters of St. Paul.  There, the discussion is about the Jewish law and the way it was interpreted and practiced centuries ago.  In meditating on that law, St. Paul observes how limited the law is as a device.  It shows us where we fall short, but it does not empower us to create real and lasting change.  That sort of empowerment depends on grace, that is, it depends on a genuine movement of the human spirit as that spirit is embraced, touched, and led by the Holy Spirit.  In short, law can only take us so far.  Where law fails, a genuine human-divine movement is required.

In the Zimmerman case, law has failed.  Whether it failed systemically, or whether it failed simply because the prosecution’s case was not sufficiently strong, will be debated for a long time to come.  But our outrage at that failure needs to move beyond a focus on the jurors or the legal process to the hard questions that the death of Trayvon Martin raises in the first place.  What we need now is a genuine movement that seeks to get at the roots of violence and race relations in this country, a movement that recognizes that — regardless of legal outcomes — it is never okay for someone to end up dead on his way home.  Trayvon Martin is dead, George Zimmerman’s soul has been damaged, and neither is okay.  The law will not save us from future incidents like this.  We must choose to walk a different path as a people and a nation.

The Forest of Deen

casting_the_first_stoneThe Forest of Deen appears in the last installment of the Harry Potter series as a place where Harry and his friends hide for a time while they are on the run from He Who Must Not Be Named.   Recently, Americans slipped into our own Forest of Deen as people got caught up in the controversy swirling around celebrity chef Paula Deen regarding her apparent racial prejudices and the vocalizing of the same.

Honestly, I was rather determined to steer clear of this controversy, which seems to be beginning to slip off the front pages.  But I overcame my reluctance when Paula Deen alluded, in a TODAY Show interview, to a story from the Gospel of John.  In that interview, she invited anyone who hadn’t said something that they regretted at some point in their lives to cast a stone right at her head.

The background to her comment is, of course, John’s story of the woman “caught in adultery”.    In Jesus’ time and place, the prescribed punishment for her misdeed was to be stoned to death.  In an effort to get Jesus to either sanction this penalty or to get him into trouble for refusing to sanction it, the crowd brings the woman before Jesus and asks him to say whether they should fulfill the law with respect to her punishment.

Jesus’ response is, well, classic Jesus.  Without getting caught in their question, he simply responds by saying, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”   The affect of his words is profound:  the crowd, one by one, drop their stones and drift away, leaving the woman alone with Jesus.   He refuses to condemn her, and sends her off forgiven with the words, “Sin no more.”

This particular teaching story of Jesus seems quite apt, actually, for the Forest of Deen into which we have recently gotten lost.  Crowds of people have risen up (and stepped up to media microphones!) to condemn Paula  Deen loudly for her apparent prejudicial attitudes and statements, and many have advocated to what amounts to a metaphorical stoning of her career, all in the name of justice or doing the right thing.

But the story from John’s Gospel should make us ask whether we are, indeed, doing the right thing.   One of the things that is revealed in the exchange between Jesus and the crowd in John’s story is that the members of that crowd were so caught up in passing judgment on the woman that they failed to examine their own lives.   Jesus’ words to them reminded them that they themselves were not so different from the woman they brought before him, that they, too, had made bad choices and sometimes had done the wrong thing.  Jesus reminded them that they were really no different from the woman they sought to destroy.  And as that truth washed over them, they found all their righteous indignation toward this woman extinguished, and they all walked off to think about their own lives, their own misdeeds, and their own need for forgiveness.

With the crowd thus transformed and chagrined, the threat of the woman’s impending destruction is removed.  And that allows Jesus to point her toward her own need for transformation.  Notice that he doesn’t just send her off — he sends her off with the words, “Sin no more”.   He recognizes that she has acted wrongly, he recognizes that there are things in her life for which she needs to repent and behaviors that she needs to change.  But rather than advocating her destruction, he seeks to give her another chance, an opportunity for rebirth.

Paula Deen surely needs to examine her own life — the way she was raised, the cultural attitudes that helped to shape her, and the way in which these have led her to somehow see black people in a different way than she sees white people.  But she is hardly the only person who needs to engage in that kind of self-examination.  The crowds clamoring for her destruction have their own prejudices and shortcomings that need to be examined and exposed to the light.  We all do.

Americans love a scandal.  We secretly (or not so secretly) enjoy watching people who have risen to great success suddenly plummet to the earth because — well, because they are human, and they have gotten caught being human.  Part of the reason, I think, that we enjoy it so much is that it seems to give us permission not to attend to the darker parts of ourselves, to ignore the fact that we, too, are human and make as many mistakes as the famous and infamous.  It is fun to be part of the clamoring crowd hauling others before the judgment seat.  If we stop our clamoring, however, we will hear the words of Jesus that remind us that we are on the same level as those we seek to judge.  We all stand in need of forgiveness, transformation, redemption, healing, and the opportunity to begin again.

I hope that Paula Deen will be able to use this crisis to grow as a human being.  But will the rest of us?