Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Open Hearts and Open Minds

This is a reflection of mine from a few years ago

Many years ago there was a boy called George. He was a French Protestant refugee growing up in England, 300 years ago. At age 12 his father sent him to sea as a midshipman, and he was sent as part of a small fleet on a diplomatic mission to the North African coast.

In Algeria something life-changing happened to him: he met Muslims. Now he had always been told these were barbarian people, infidels, lost souls: the part of humanity predestined to hell. But when he met them for himself – he realised that these were people with compassion, with love, with a life of prayer – all those things that he considered “Christian” – he observed in these Muslims.

Something changed in George that day: his heart opened, his mind opened. His heart opened to seeing those Muslims in Algeria as good, as God-filled people; and his mind opened to the idea that maybe God was bigger. Maybe God didn’t just care for Christians. Maybe God’s love was wider than he had ever imagined. Maybe God’s love extended to all people, regardless of race or religion. 

George de Benneville (for that was his name) then spent the rest of his life preaching a Gospel of inclusion, a Gospel of Love. He preached that God would not condemn people to hell. He preached universalism – that God will save all people; that God’s love is infinite.

This is just one story that is part of the heritage of Unitarians. The funny thing about Unitarianism is that it has never been spread through missionary work. It didn’t start in one place, and was spread to other places by sending missionaries. Unitarianism rather is a lot of individual stories of people having those moments of open hearts and open minds: of finding and seeking a more expansive faith. So Unitarianism started independently in France, in Hungary, in Poland, in Britain, in America, in India, in the Philippines. It started with a few individuals beginning to question, beginning to think for themselves, and coming to a faith of open hearts and open minds.

You see, a lot of times religion shuts down our minds. A lot of times religion expects us to leave our minds at the door. A lot of times religion thinks it has all the right answers. There is a story that a preacher was once talking to a Sunday School class and he said, “I have a question for you. What is grey, has a bushy tail, quite small, likes to climb trees, and likes to eat nuts?” And there was silence. And the preacher said, “Come, on. It’s a really easy question.” And one child tentatively put his hand up and said, “Is the answer…. Jesus?”

Because Jesus is always the answer right? That’s what we can be taught. There’s always a simple answer: Jesus. Whatever the question is, the answer is Jesus. Of course when you actually read what Jesus said you find he’s much more interested in questioning your answers than answering your questions.

God, the Universe, faith, Life – is bigger than we know; is bigger than we will ever know. So we must have an open mind; a mind open to what new truth we will discover. The Unitarian faith is not about having all the answers. We do not claim to have the ultimate truth. We do not claim that we are the only people with the truth. We simply claim that this is a spiritual journey of open hearts and open minds.

So many times we have closed hearts. Our hearts are closed because of pain, because we don’t believe we’re good enough, because our society teaches us to be anxiously striving for more of everything. When our hearts are closed, we’re cut off from the world. We fear the world, we believe the world is a frightening place. We believe the world is out to get us, or at least laughing behind our back. Or we believe the world is a boring place, a grey place, a meaningless place. We all feel like this sometimes.

But sometimes our hearts open: our hearts open when we connect with another human being. Our hearts open when beauty takes our breath away. Our hearts open when, like George to Benneville, we realise a greater truth, we break out of our narrow ideologies. But these moments are fleeting, and sometimes our heart closes again. So we need to practice again and again opening our hearts.

That’s the mission of a religious community; to meet, and worship, and to keep our hearts open; to remind ourselves of a deeper purpose to our lives; to open our hearts to a greater joy; to open our hearts to more love.

Maybe sometimes our hearts close once more, and we need to come back to the Source, back to the root, back to that promise of the Spirit: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 11:19)

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