This joint sermon was delivered at Arlington Street Church in Boston, MA, on August 3, 2014.
You can listen to an audio recording here (in my opinion, the audio recording is much better than the written word—I swear! We’re more charming in person).
We aren’t taught in this culture to be openhearted. There’s no lesson. And I came to openheartedness as central to my spiritual practice the hard way. Whether it was the violence I was growing up with, the shame and the struggle around being queer and being gender nonconforming, whether it was being 28 years old and being diagnosed with AIDS at a time before medication was available.
Every turn I came to in life there was a reason for me to armor up. There was a reason for me to not let anyone near me. Because the outside world was telling me that if I wanted to stay protected I needed to curl in a ball. The last thing I ever needed to do was leave myself vulnerable. But at the same time that the world was telling me that, there was always this soft, loving voice of the beloved telling me that that was not for me. That I was meant to be openhearted regardless of the information I was getting from the outside world.
But I had to figure out how, right—because wanting to be openhearted and actually being openhearted in this world when there was no bridge was something I had to go learn. And so I built in spiritual practices, actual skills, rituals, that allowed me to drown out the messages I was hearing from outside of me. And some of the ways that I’ve done that have been through bhakti chanting, in the yoga and Hindu tradition, which is actually reciting a chant over and over again—so song, ritualized song, that gets through my thinking and gets through the messaging and immediately opens my heart. It always does, no matter how closed off or how terrified I am.
The other practice that I have is actually kneeling down and putting my forehead to the floor—privileging my heart above my head. I actually physically have to do that, it can’t be an intellectual choice. I actually put myself in that place because my body takes over. My body just takes over after all these years of doing that. And what that allows me to do is it allows me to greet the world and myself from this place of expansiveness that does not come naturally to me. And more and more over time as I get more grey hair it comes more naturally, right, but it allows that to just flow.
And so I invite you to allow openheartedness to flow. Flow in you as a way of healing and centering, and flow out of you, because we heal in that exchange. We are hurt in relationship and we heal in relationship. And so our hearts are not simply individual, they are also communal. I can show up with my open heart but when the community around me has also shown up with an open heart, it is palpable, it is larger than just my wish and desire to live in the world in this way.
So my invitation to you is to try this on today. It may be uncomfortable, it may be awesome, it may be both. But another Rumi quote that I often rely on is “our strength is in the gentleness and tenderness of our heart.” So please, that’s my invitation to you today.
When I first moved to Boston, I volunteered at a women’s shelter and I loved it there—loved listening to the women’s stories of incredible bravery and courage as they left violent homes or tackled addiction or figured out how to support their children on minimum wage jobs. But I learned the most about openheartedness from a ten-second interaction with an older woman named Margaret who ran the coffee and toast area each morning. Once, when I offered to fill in for her, she said “Oh no, dear, thank you. Louise says the toaster is interfering with her brain waves today. She feels better if I stand between her and the toaster.” I asked Margaret if she thought standing between Louise and the toaster would help Louise’s brain waves. Margaret looked at me as though I were a very small child and said, “Does it matter, dear?”
I clearly had a lesson to learn—so I asked one of the staff what is the appropriate response when someone tells you the toaster is interfering with their brain waves? The staff member said something I’ve never forgotten and that I return to again and again when talking with anyone whose experience of the world is different from my own. She said “Start with that it is true—because it is true, for that person in that moment.” Her point wasn’t that I needed to be open–minded—that I needed to be willing to consider someone else’s opinion and possibly change my mind—but rather, that I needed to be openhearted, to hear people’s experiences from a position of compassion and generosity, to hear their experiences as valid even if they don’t line up with my understanding of the world.
I often go back to that moment, and it has really translated into a life lesson in openheartedness for me. As Unitarian Universalists we are called to have open minds, open hearts, and open hands, but I don’t always know how. Start with that it’s true reminds me that, here, together, we each bring our own understanding of the truth, and your truth needn’t mirror mine in order to be valid. In fact, in many ways, we are all better off if there are many truths and many understandings to learn from.
But when a member of my congregation tells me they have experienced racism or sexism within our community, I don’t start with that it’s true—because I don’t want it to be. My openheartedness breaks down. Instead, I become invested in convincing them that there must be some misunderstanding. And maybe there has been a misunderstanding. That doesn’t remove the fact that that experience has occurred. I default to this very comfortable position of open–mindedness, where I’m willing and able to see all sides of the story and I end up doing what a friend of mine describes as “whitesplaining.”
Whitesplaining is explaining a situation from the point of view of a white person as though that point of view is the norm and those who are not white need to be educated about this perspective. For example, rather than opening my heart in compassion to simply be present with this person who has experienced racism or sexism in their spiritual home, I whitesplain all the other possible justifications for the experience. I whitesplain that maybe you’re too sensitive or you don’t understand that kind of humor. Allow me to whitesplain what that person meant, so you can see how you didn’t actually experience racism. You just thought you did. I work hard to make sure that person sees how their experience can’t possibly be true—because I don’t want it to be.
Openheartedness—starting with that it’s true and simply hearing that truth in love—allows me to keep listening, to stay engaged, and to build on that relationship. It gives me a shot at creating room for the person to be heard, to together devise a way for that experience to be considered, and for us all to continuing building a peaceful world starting with peace in our congregations.
Rev. Kim says, “Just say, ‘Oh!’” I remember a sermon shortly before Thanksgiving when many of us were about to spend time with family members who may have different experiences of the world. She called on us to “Just say ‘Oh,’” listening and responding with a compassionate open heart.
One last example of practicing openheartedness: a UU musician friend of mine shared his efforts at openheartedness with me recently, saying that sometimes he’ll play a song in a service and someone will approach him to say that they were uncomfortable with the lyrics in that song. He used to say “oh yeah, me too, I know what you mean,” until he realized that the conversation seemed to end right there. He found he could listen with a more generous heart if he simply said, “tell me more.” Tell me more gave him the opportunity to keep learning.
Start with that it’s true, just say “Oh,” and tell me more.
My friends, Unitarian Universalism calls us to grow into our best selves, to have open hearts, open minds, and open hands. Openheartedness asks us to not only speak our truths in love, but to hear others’ truths in love. Openheartedness calls us to be the compassion beyond the pain, and to be the love to guide the way.
Blessed Be and Amen