Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Atlanta, Ga.
Readings: Psalm 139, Matthew 6:19-21, Matthew 15:10-20, 1 Peter 3:13-17
Better heresy of doctrine than heresy of heart. (John Greenleaf Whittier)
Thomas Carlyle said, “A loving heart is the beginning of all knowledge.” On this point I believe Jesus and Carlyle are in agreement. Jesus told his disciples that “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.” If our hearts are not loving … if we are not following the path of love that our hearts desire, then the utterances of our mouth will be nothing but pure evil, pure hate, pure deceit. When we cultivate a loving heart we find knowledge — not just knowledge of the world but, more importantly, knowledge of ourselves.
I had a revelation of this fact about a year ago as I was lying, quite naked and vulnerable, on a massage therapist’s table. The therapist was massaging an area of my upper chest when she remarked about how tight I was in that region. She then explained to me the concept in Chinese medicine that the body is divided into seven chakras or power points. The point she was massaging is called the Heart Chakra. Since it was tight she said, “That means you’re not following your heart.” I immediately burst into tears. Those simple words, said in passing by my massage therapist, hit home with me. It made me realize that more than anything else I need to honor what’s in my heart. I cannot live in any way that is contrary to what I know in my heart to be God’s will for my life.
John Greenleaf Whittier gives us the title of this sermon. “Better heresy of doctrine than heresy of heart.” Each of us here tonight knows this saying to be true. Each of us, because we are sitting in a church as openly GLBT people, alongside our straight allies, knows that we are doctrinal heretics. But we also know that being doctrinal heretics is better than hiding, denying our true selves, and living a lie that doctrine would have us to live.
We’ve heard all the doctrines before. There are doctrines that tell us we are “intrinsically disordered.” There are doctrines that tell us we are “abominations.” There are doctrines telling us we are unloved by God unless we change our sexuality. All these doctrines are a heresy of our hearts, because, in our hearts we know better. We know the doctrines are wrong. In our hearts, we know there is no disorder in our sexuality. In our hearts, we know we are blessings to God. In our hearts, we know God loves us no matter what. To choose heresy of doctrine over heresy of heart is what we do when we realize that we are God’s children, beloved and blessed, just as we are … as GLBT people … no matter what the doctrines might say to the contrary.
Just as we have so honestly rejected doctrine in the face of our God-given and God-blessed sexuality, so should we also be honest about other doctrines that do not speak to our heart. Don’t be afraid to examine your faith or your beliefs. If doctrines do not speak to your heart, do not hesitate to discard them. Doctrines were developed centuries ago to assist people in learning more about God and how to worship God. Just because doctrines are old does not make them true for all eternity. If doctrines of yesterday cause your heart to stumble today take Whittier’s advice and commit a heresy of doctrine before you commit a heresy of heart.
But, maybe that begs the question … how do we know what is in our hearts? How do we cultivate that heart of love that will express itself in the words that we speak? How do we discover what path our hearts should tread?
Buddhist monk, Jack Kornfield, in his book “A Path with Heart” gives us a starting place in answering that question. Above all, he advises, any path we choose should “have heart.” Think deeply about the path your life is on right now. Is it a path that fills your heart with joy and anticipation of each new day? Or is it a path that fills your heart with dread as each new day begins? If your heart feels heavy as you go through each day … then the path you’ve chosen isn’t one with heart. My massage therapist would probably find your heart chakra very tight.
Jesus tells us that where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also. That sounds wonderful, but there’s a warning there, too. Think carefully. What do you treasure? Do you treasure your partner, your job, your house, your car … money? Wherever our treasure is … our hearts will be there. But are we treasuring the right things? If we treasure relationships over God, or money over God, or any material thing over God, our hearts are treasuring the wrong things. Jesus tells us in Matthew 22:37 that we must “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.” Listen to that verse carefully. We’re told that we must love God not only with our minds and our souls but also with our hearts! If our treasure is God … there will our hearts be also.
This is the key to finding that path with heart. First we must discover what it is our heart treasures. If our heart treasures anything above God then we are in danger of being on a path without heart. The path worth pursuing is a path with heart. A path with heart has God as its center … as its ultimate treasure … where our hearts “sanctify Christ as Lord.”
Don’t worry that your path may seem very different from someone else’s path. We are not all called to walk the same path. Even if we all keep God as the center of that path, our paths may look very different, even contradictory to someone else’s path. That doesn’t matter … let no one tell you you’re on the wrong path if you know in your heart that you are where God has led you to be! No one can map out your path but you and God. If your heart treasures God above all else … then your path will be made clear.
So we must then begin a process of letting go. This is our first step on our spiritual path. We must let go of false treasures. Let go of our heart’s desire for relationships, money, cars, houses and jobs. I say this is a process … and often it is a long process … a daily process … of reorienting ourselves to God. But we must dedicate ourselves to walking this path with heart.
It’s difficult in our busy lives to even think about beginning a process of letting go. With so many activities filling our daily calendars, how can we even think of letting go of the material stuff that consumes us? How do we find the time in our busyness to stop and consider whether we’re even on the right path to begin with? And do we really want to let go at all? Isn’t it, after all, the things around us that make us important, that fill us with a sense of self? Yes, often it is the things around us that make us important, but that’s the point … it shouldn’t be like that. What makes us important is our heart … and what it treasures. If it treasures things, our spiritual path is empty, heartless. If it treasures God above everything, then and only then, can our paths full of heart.
I have very recently begun the practice of meditation. I am still a novice at this practice … easily distracted by the daily chores of living … but so far it’s been interesting to spend 10 or 20 minutes each morning simply sitting and breathing … realizing the fullness of life and contemplating my heart and its path.
Finding time to be still in our busy lives is important if we are to truly locate that path that our heart longs to be on. Many may feel that even taking the time to do so is a waste of time … time that could be spent doing something more outwardly productive. Maybe … but I’ve found that those outwardly productive things still get done even if I spend time in meditation. As the old saying goes, rarely do people come to the end of their lives and wish they had spent more time at work. Instead, we tend to ask — Did we live well? Did we spend enough time with our friends and family? Did we love well?
Our spiritual practice … our goal of finding that path with a heart … begins when we stop to take inventory of how precious our lives are, and whether we’re spending our time wisely. Kornfield recommends a simple meditation for this that I’d like us all to take a minute to do.
In Buddhist practice, one is urged to consider how to live well by reflecting on one’s death. The traditional meditation for this purpose is to sit quietly and sense the tentativeness of life. After reading this paragraph, close your eyes and feel the mortality of this human body that you have been given. Death is certain for all of us — only the time of death is yet to be discovered. Imagine yourself to be at the end of your life — next week or next year or next decade, some time in the future. Now cast your memory back across your whole life and bring to mind two good deeds that you have done, two things that you did that were good. They need not be grandiose; let whatever wants to arise show itself. In picturing and remembering these good deeds, also become aware of how these memories affect your consciousness, how they transform the feelings and state of the heart and mind, as you see them.
Let’s take some time now to do this meditation.
I’ll admit this exercise was rather hard for me when I first read it. Of course, Whosoever immediately comes to mind. The magazine, by all accounts, has been a good deed and has helped hundreds of people that I know about and probably thousands that I don’t know about. But, my other good deed that came to mind was very small … it was the times I have lent money to friends in need without the expectation of ever having it paid back. In truth, I’ve been paid back many times over by God’s blessings on my life. The money isn’t important.
What were some of your deeds that arose? Would anyone like to quickly share just some of their thoughts? Just tell us a phrase that came to mind … like mine would be “loaning money.”
What this meditation shows us, Kornfield says is that, “the things that matter most in our lives are not fantastic or grand. They are the moments when we touch one another, when we are there in the most attentive or caring way. … These moments of touching and being touched can become a foundation for a path with heart … ”
When we do these good deeds … when we reach out to those around us without thought for our own good, our own comfort … these are the moments when we have made God our treasure. These are the moments in which we have loved God with our hearts, not just our minds and our souls. These are the moments we should meditate on … the moments we should seek to multiply as we continue on our spiritual journey.
You will find this spiritual path difficult because along the way there will be so many people who will try to dissuade you from following this path. More often than not I’ve found such people to be those of a more right-wing thinking who believe there is only one path that the heart must tread … theirs … of course. A path that strictly adheres to doctrines, no matter what the heart may say. Those on the religious right tell us that by following our hearts we will end up in hell … sentenced to eternal damnation. They’ve made up doctrines saying it’s so! They’ve convinced a good many [too many!] of our GLBT brothers and sisters that it’s true! They’ve held many of our brothers and sisters hostage with outdated doctrines and dogma. They’ve made these people so afraid of God’s wrath that they willingly commit heresy of heart to avoid any appearance of heresy of doctrine. We in the GLBT community are not innocent of these charges either. Even within many GLBT congregations, doctrines can become so strong that people will commit heresy of heart easily before they’ll go against any doctrine the church or congregation teaches.
But, it is our hearts that God desires not our adherence to doctrines! The Psalmist invites God to “search me … and know my heart.” God knows our hearts … God knows our paths [And, remember, not all of our paths are the same. We must respect each other’s path for if it is a path with heart, they all lead to God.] Since God knows our hearts and our paths then we cannot find a place where God is not. We can run from the path with heart … we can choose a life of trying to hide from God … or we can stop now, and listen to what our hearts are telling us. Our hearts long for God … for that path where God walks with us. Let no one tell you that you have no right to walk that path as the person you are. God knows your heart! God knows your path! If a doctrine of the church … or a doctrine of society … stands between you and your heart’s path, remember “better heresy of doctrine than heresy of heart.”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.