The Heart of the Matter: Capstone Address at the Compassionate Care Conference (Seattle, 17 August 2013)
Over the past day and a half, we have had the opportunity to listen to and consider a wide range of opinions, beliefs, thoughts, arguments and propositions. We have been blessed to have had scholarly treatises, personal stories, panel discussions, workshops, and personal testimonies. All of these expressions have enriched this conference.
The theme of this conference, “Deepening the Conversation on Gays in the Church,” reminds me of the Lord’s invitation for us to reason together with him. We might think of that invitation in terms of how we normally think of reason—that is cognitively, rationally, and intellectually, but the scriptures give us an expanded understanding of reason. It is summarized in Pascal dictum, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” It is interesting how many times in the scriptures we are invited to think, ponder and consider matters in our hearts.
I worked for a dozen years at the Institute of HeartMath, a research and education Institute in the Santa Cruz Mountains involved in the new field of neurocardiology, the science of understanding the heart and its relation to the brain, body and spirit. In this new field, scientists are learning some fascinating things about the heart, including the fact it has thousands of neurons like the neurons in our brains and, further, that the heart and brain are in constant, dynamic correspondence with one another.
What cardiologist have also discovered is that a person’s heart starts beating before his/her brain is fully formed, suggesting that it has a primary role in initiating human life. Further, the heart produces five-thousand times more electromagnetic energy than the brain, giving it the power to bring other bodily systems into coherence. Scientists now postulate that with its own independent nervous system, the heart possesses some kind of cognitive and memory capacity, what neurocardiologists refer to as “the little brain in the heart.” According to Paul Pearsall, author of The Heart’s Code, “Western medicine is only now catching up with what [ancient] peoples have known for years, . . . [that] the heart thinks, feels, remembers. . . . It communicates the information and memory stored throughout its life to every cell in the human body.” Thus, when Jesus says, “As a person thinks in her heart, so is she,” or invites us to ponder his words in our hearts, he is not speaking just metaphorically.
Let me share with you the following from a chapter I co-wrote for the Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology published by Oxford University Press in 2009:
The heart has long been associated with positive spiritual states. All faith traditions consider the heart the seat of positive emotions, including love, compassion, praise, and joy. From earliest recorded history, humans considered the heart a sacred center of human experience essential not only for the transfer of knowledge and for passing on wisdom, but for achieving and expressing transcendent spiritual feelings. From father to son, mother to daughter, rabbi, shaman and sage to their followers, and even God to prophets, spiritual feelings were conveyed from heart to heart as well as from heart to mind. Images of the heart show up in the iconography of most ancient cultures. As Louisa Young says, “As soon as mankind knew anything about itself, it knew that it had a heart.”
Many traditional cultures saw the heart as the locus of the intellect, memory, spirit, and regenerative power. In many early texts we find the idea of offering one’s heart to deity. The Bible uses such language as God creating a new heart for those who seek to change their lives, purifying one’s heart, and having God’s word written on one’s heart. Similar ideas are found in Muslim, Buddhist, and other sacred books.
I cite this research because I feel that to a significant degree our failure as a church and community to truly understand the plight of our gay and lesbian fellow saints is related to our failure to listen to them with our hearts. Had we done so, we would have heard their cries, their pleas for understanding, their desperation and loneliness, their wish to no longer be outcasts from our families and congregations, and, having heard, having truly listened with our hearts, we would have treated them differently than we have.
We now have a chance to change that, to begin listening to these our fellow saints with what Rumi called “the deep ear inside the chest.” John says, “Dear children, let us not love in word or tongue, but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts and knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask” (1 John 3:18-22). I believe that if we were truly to examine our hearts over the past decades in terms of how we have responded to our LGBT members, they would condemn us.
It occurred to me recently that all of us are born wanting love, spend most of our lives trying to get love and die without having gotten enough. While we may have difficulty getting from and giving love to others, the one source of love on which we can all depend, is God’s love. As Paul says (and pay attention to his categories), “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Rom 8:38). Even when we try to separate ourselves from God, he is yearning to extend his love to us. In Mormon theology, we should use the plural pronoun here, because it is truly their love, the love of both our Heavenly Father and our Heavenly Mother that is abundantly ours. In spite of our sometimes sinful and rebellious nature, we don’t seem able to escape their love. Even when we run from them, the freedom to run is a gift from them.
God’s love is certain and unwavering, constant and enduring. Ours clearly is not. Paraphrasing Paul, I wish as a Church we could say, “Neither prejudice, no politics, nor mythology, nor faulty science, nor public opinion, nor community pressure, nor ignorance, nor anything else in creation is able to prevent us from fully loving our LGBT members.” How different the past half century would have been had we acted on such a commitment.
I believe it is God’s will that we love our gay brothers, our lesbian sisters, and our bisexual and transgender members as fully as we are capable. More than anything, love heals us, makes us whole, infuses us with light and energy, transforms us. It is the power that makes us godly and ultimately can make us gods.
As I have said in other contexts, I am convinced that the purpose of the Church is to make it possible for us to have three central experiences, all of which are designed by loving heavenly parents to help us move to higher planes of spiritual evolution.
The primary purpose of the Church is to make it possible for us to experience the rich, abundant and unconditional love of God. Ideally, all of the Church’s programs and activities should reflect this purpose. Perhaps locked in our deepest pre-existent memories, imprinted on our souls is a remembrance of what it felt like to be held in the loving embrace of our Father and Mother in Heaven. I am convinced that that was the purest experience we have ever felt, an experience so profound and joyful that when we are in touch with it, we are motivated to spend our entire lives trying to get back into their presence so that we might feel that love for eternity. That we can have real impressions and even experiences—physical, emotional and spiritual—of that love in mortality is, I believe, their way of beckoning us back to their presence.
The next purpose of the Church is to help us love ourselves. This is not merely a wish on the Lord’s part, but one of his great commandments (to love others as we love ourselves). He has revealed the gospel and designed his Church and kingdom so that we will truly know that we are unique, eternal creatures begotten out of love and of inestimable worth to those who begot us and to their Son who gave his life that we might return to their presence. When we truly experience this love—feel it in our hearts and minds, on the surface of our skin, in our cells and bones—then we know we are loveable—can love ourselves. As Mormon theologian Adam Miller writes, when we feel and express such love, our “arms are tattooed with a fine scrawl of unrepeating names for God’s grace.”
Being able to love ourselves makes it possible for us to love others and to receive their love, which is the third central purpose of the Church. Notice how much of the gospel is focused on the commandment that we love one another. It is very difficult for people to feel the love of God if they have not first experienced the love of other human beings. Those who doubt the love of God generally are those who doubt the love of their parents and others, who on some deep level are convinced that they are unlovable. In reality, we can’t accept the Atonement until we are able to love those who, like ourselves, are undeserving of Christ’s love. It is through loving others that we participate with God in the redemption of his children, and it is in being loved by others that we receive the power to seek redemption. For there can be no redemption without love–not just God’s love, but the love we give to and receive from others. This reminds me of what my friend the American writer, Barry Lopez, says: “When I think of the phrase ‘the love of God,’ I think of this great and beautiful complexity we hold within us, this pattern of light and emotion we call God, and that the rare, pure ferocity of our love sent anywhere in that direction is worth all the mistakes we endure to practice it.”
When as individuals or as a church we fail to enable and practice these central purposes, as I feel we have done in relation to our LGBT members, it frustrates the work of God. We are called by God to help the Church fulfill its central mission of making love possible in all its heavenly and earthly manifestations—to all who seek fellowship with us.
In her beautifully honest and touching book, Travelling Mercies, Anne Lamott tells of finding her way to God out of an atheistic upbringing and a godless world of drug and alcohol abuse, by hearing singing from a black church, St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, as she stood across the street in a flea market in Marin, California. This happened at a point in her life when she felt herself “crossing over to the dark side.” For a number of Sundays she simply stood in the doorway and listened to the singing of this small black congregation. Slowly she inched her way into the church. She writes, “Eventually, a few months after I started coming, I took a seat in one of the folding chairs, off by myself. Then the singing enveloped me. It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone’s very heart.”
The effect of her walking into that Church was to give her a light out of the darkness: “Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender. Somehow the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions that kept me so isolated.” But, as she had done on previous Sundays, she rushed out of the church before the sermon. A week later she stayed for the entire service, and says,” [One of the songs was] so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling—and it washed over me.” In reflecting on this experience later, she said, “When I was at the end of my rope, the people at St. Andrew tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. The church became my home in the old meaning of home—which it’s where, when you show up, they have to let you in. They let me in.”
That, among other things, is what churches are for—to create a home for us, to let us all in. They exist so that we can experience the love of God and the love of other people in deep, intimate ways and, therefore, feel enough love for ourselves so that we can allow the grace of God to work its miracle in our lives. It is for such experiences, I believe, that our gay and lesbian members long, and I believe God is calling us to create a space in our hearts and in our congregations for them to experience it.
Such acts of acceptance, love, and generosity have their genesis in the light of Christ which is in every one of us. It is our sacred calling to magnify that light in our hearts and souls and to carry it to one another with generosity, gratitude and grace. In reality, this is what the word Zion means—it is the place where the pure in heart live, it is where love lives and therefore where God lives. It is the place where love engenders unity and harmony, where, in fulfillment of Christ’s invitation and promise, we become one—one with our Heavenly Father and Mother, one with their Son, and one with one another. As modern revelation puts it, “And the Lord called his people Zion because they were of one heart and mind.”
One of the ways in which we have closed our hearts to our gay lesbian members is that we have failed to see that what they desire in terms of relationships is exactly what we all desire. By characterizing their wish for intimate connectedness as somehow unnatural, deviant, lustful and sybaritic, we have demeaned and caricaturized them. Why should it be surprising to us that hearing all of their lives—In family home evening, in primary, in Sunday school, in ward, stake and general conferences, in seminary and institute–that the highest Latter-day Saint ideal is to find a partner and create a family, that they wouldn’t want that as much as anyone? Consider this recent revelation: the metropolitan city in the United States with the highest percentage of gay parents is Salt Lake City! Of course, why wouldn’t it be? These Latter-day Saints are attempting to find a way to live the Mormon ideal, even if the way they are doing it is not approved by the Church and not encouraged and supported by their fellow saints.
We teach our children that human desires for intimacy are divinely-implanted. Parley P. Pratt said: “Our natural affections are planted in us by the Spirit of God for a wise purpose, and they are the very main-springs of life and happiness—they are the cement of all virtuous and heavenly society—they are the essence of charity, or love, and therefore never fail, but endure forever.” In speaking of the desire for the intimate love that engenders the world, Pratt says, “From this union of affection, spring all the other relationships, social joys and affections, diffused through every branch of human existence.” This is why, in the words of Terryl and Fiona Givens, we all have an “unceasing search for community, for companionship, for intimacy.” Another way to put this is that we are hard-wired to seek for that kind of love. Again, as the Givens assert, “Relationships are the core of our existence because they are the core of God’s, and we are in his [or their] image. . . . However rapturous or imperfect, fulsome or shattered our knowledge of love has been, we sense it is the very basis and purpose of our existence. [Love] is a longing that we crave because it is [a longing] we have always known.”
Our failure to understand that our LGBT members have as deep a longing for this connectedness as the rest of us is one of the ways in which we have failed them. It isn’t our calling as individual members to determine doctrine or establish Church policy. It is our calling to be empathetic, to understand, and, as Alma admonishes us, have as the desire of our heart to “mourn with those that mourn; and comfort those that stand in need of comfort”—and to pray on their behalf. Instead of foreclosing all hope for them, we should be saying something like the following: “We don’t know what our Heavenly Father might reveal on the subject of same-sex relations, but, given the fact that, as our ninth Article of Faith states, ‘We believe that [God] will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God,’ we remain open to and hopeful of new understandings. Until such come, we will do everything in our power to make these saints welcome in our families, communities congregations.”
The scriptures tell us that “Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom.” That is, step by step, loving act by loving act, we build Zion by our willingness, even eagerness, to govern our lives by love—love in all its dimensions, in all its variety, in all its richness and its marvelous multiplicity and wonder.
One of the wonders of Latter-day Saint theology is that we believe that God has a heart like our hearts, a heart that beats in harmony with the pulse of the universe, a heart that beats more capable than ours with love, mercy, and forgiveness. God’s heart is as expansive as the universe, ours less so. What this suggests, I believe, is that our hearts can become attuned to God’s heart and that the more we are in harmony with ourselves and with God, the more we are able to love others and in this way the more our hearts become like his.
The scriptures tell us that “God has set his heart on us.” Everything in Christ’s gospel suggests that God in turn calls us not only to set our hearts on him, but on one another. It is interesting that when Jesus commanded us to love God completely, he put the heart first and the mind last: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Matt. 22:37). When we love God in this way we become capable of loving other people with a similar kind of wholeness. One of the stories told about Abraham is a conversation he had with God in which God invites him, “Walk in my presence! And be wholehearted.”
It was with his whole heart that God gave the world his only begotten son. When we come to accept the miracle of his son’s birth and what it means to us, we are born again through him. In this way we are a fulfillment of the promise God made to the children of Israel when he said, “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26-28).
In our treatment of our LGBT brothers and sisters, we have often had stony hearts. The new heart that God promises us allows us to create a Zion society—families, communities and congregations where the pure in heart dwell. The bible suggests that there is such a thing as a communal heart, a place where all who dwell there join to create a unifying heart-field. We might speculate that the reason Enoch’s city of Zion was taken into the heavens is that all who lived there had attuned their hearts to God’s heart.
One of Bach’s arias exclaims, “Open wide my heart its portals, let Jesus enter in.” It is my hope that as Latter-day Saints we will all open wide the portals of our hearts not only to let Jesus in, but to let all of his children in, including our gay brothers and lesbian sisters. At Christmas we sing, “Let every heart prepare him room.” I pray brothers and sisters that we each will prepare room in our hearts for him and for all of those for whom we have not yet prepared room. May he bless us that we will open wide the doors and windows of our hearts more fully than we ever have before. In return for Christ’s great heart-gift, let us give him and all those within the circle of our love, including our LGBT brothers and sisters, the gift of a broken heart, an open heart, a generous heart, a grateful heart, and, most of all, a loving heart.