Learning the Ways of the Heart Sun, 4th February, 2018
My heart has grown two sizes this past week, as I’m learning to get out of my head and explore the world of the poetic and emotional. It began with the meditation in my Spiritual and Personal Formation class last Thursday. The leader of last week’s meditation had us bring some old magazines, some paper, scissors and some glue. Ugh. A Sunday school art project? Is this what I came to seminary for?
In an unexpected turn, the leader then gave us a copy of the 23rd Psalm. You know this one: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” And she then asked us to reflect on the deeper, personal meaning that spoke to us from this classic Psalm and to create a collage that illustrates our thoughts and feelings visually. My mind resisted.
My experience of seminary so far has been learning how to do theological interpretation, which is more like complicated math than I would care to admit. What is the nature of God? What is sin? Where in the text can we find a message of social justice? What is the Hebrew word for “wilderness”? What do we do about the difficult texts that speak of death and division? Big ideas. But no, now we were going to do a craft project.
As I flipped through the magazines, I contemplated: what is my want and where are my still waters? What am I shepherding and what is shepherding me? I found that I had to turn off my theological brain and let my heart guide me, rather like young Luke in Star Wars first learning to access “the Force” while blindfolded. I soon found pictures that began telling a story. Then the story came tumbling out of me and, before I knew it, I had more pictures than I could fit on my page.
This is no great piece of art, but my result is pictured here. The old man, alone, is my “shall not want”: I don’t want to grow old alone, but rather to live in vibrant, loving community all the days of my life. The hula dancer is reaching out to embrace divinity in the universe, and is a symbol for me of my loving life partner who is devoted to the ways of hula. The Native American weaving artwork in the center represents art in nature, which brings me inner peace and poetic reflection. And what I am shepherding, and what shepherds me, is creating loving human relationships that liberate us from the old “us vs. them” paradigms. As Dr. King wrote, we must learn to be transformed nonconformists.
The transforming power of love then returned to me on Sunday, when I had an online dialogue with a young gay friend overseas. In an online LGBT forum, he had previously posted about feeling suicidal and his life not having any meaning, as he struggled to claim his authentic identity in a muslim culture that is hostile to unorthodox ways of loving. The thought nearly broke my heart, so I reached out and befriended him. On Sunday, our conversation had turned to his attempt to understand the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is traditionally taught as a condemnation of homosexuality. Despite all the theologizing, my intellectual brain couldn’t solve this one, but the two of us together found a path to life rather than death. He told me I had saved his life, and tears welled up in my eyes. I didn’t know I possessed the powers of life and death. As I ended the conversation, I walked past a door in our bedroom and saw a small rainbow sign, reminding me of the one in my collage. Maybe the collage of my heartfelt longing to create loving community was actually much more real than all the intellectualizing.
Then I read Audre Lorde’s essays “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” and “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” I literally wrote the word “Wow” in the margins in at least two different places. Her general idea is that poetry is essential for women (and here I also read in, other oppressed minorities). It’s essential because it is a way to access the deep meaning within ourselves that rejects the constructs of culture. It’s the feelings and longings speaking within us that liberate us, as opposed to the script that society would have us follow.
One of the lines that brought this home, especially for me as a white male studying theology intellectually: “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us - the poet - whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.” This idea is so liberating to me, and finally helps me understand how art connects to spirituality. It is the realm of the emotional and deep, an inner place wherein dwells a radical love that transforms people’s lives from the inside out.
What I can take home from this is that poetry, feelings and emotions are my true religion. This is why I cry when I think of tender, heartfelt exchanges of love between people, and why traditional religious “teachings” leave me cold. While Lorde wasn’t directly speaking to me, I have so much to learn from her approach. From the essay on Uses of the Erotic, which is to say, our emotional, feeling, loving side, I took the lesson that our greatest power is our love, our passion, and our joy. It is these gifts that lift our own souls, and then allow us to lift up others.
I’ll leave you with this powerful Lorde quotation from a third essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” She’s speaking to a convocation of women, where she expounded on the idea that silence is death, while speaking - forming language and poetry found within us - is a bridge to life and community. Here’s the challenge from Audre Lorde that I can only aspire to live into:
“What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies that you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am a lesbian, because I am myself - a Black woman warrior poet doing my work - come to ask you, are you doing yours?”
May all of us who aspire to minister to human souls answer Lorde’s challenge with a life-giving yes.