We were in the presence of a sacred heart at last nights Subversive Faith interview. The French word “coeur”, meaning heart, is the root of the word “courage”.
From Merriam-Webster: courage implies firmness of mind and will in the face of danger or extreme difficulty <the courage to support unpopular causes>. spirit also suggests a quality of temperament enabling one to hold one’s own or keep up one’s morale when opposed or threatened <her spirit was unbroken by failure>. tenacity implications of stubborn persistence and unwillingness to admit defeat <held to their beliefs with great tenacity>.
Peter Williams’ story gave us much to wonder about last night. He called us to join him in a crusade against shame. “A community without shame would remove the hurt that hinders all efforts to build community.” In its place, instead of shame, there would be compassion and a listening ear.
While the professional medical community spun its wheels trying to come to terms with the sexual politics of medicine (how to fund research and treatments that were politically “untouchable”) – there arose a need for a community response. Suddenly, there was a professional role for gay men with lived experience of how to negotiate the territory between society and individuals marginalized by their “unacceptable” sexual identity.
The gift in the midst of this tragedy, as Peter described it, was that when people’s death becomes imminent “there’s no time for any more bullshit”. Suddenly people need to resolve their response to their own death – to their anger, fear, and helplessness – and they need to resolve their relationships with parents, siblings and family. Now that there was no time for secrets and shame – people needed support to do and say what really mattered.
This is where Peter’s distinctions between faith and religion become most clear. While religion served to shame and exclude, faith was a living presence in the midst of human suffering. Peter tells of how 18 of his 20 closest friends died within a few years. Only a few church funerals were provided – and only if HIV was not spoken of. Instead Peter found himself organizing and leading funeral services that gathered friends and family to share sorrow and make meaning together.
Religion lifts expectations beyond what is humanly possible and always leads, eventually, to dissapointment. Religion gives power to people who use shame and fear to sustain their power and privilege over others.
Church however, for Peter, is about people coming together to share stories and walk with one another. By walking together and listening with a compassionate heart, we make meaning together. Community happens along the way.
“We can’t assume that just because we have a common vocabulary – that we share the same assumptions and experiences around the words we use.” Where can we find the safe spaces and the time to explore with one another what we really mean when we use words like faith, god, belief…?
“My agnostic and atheist parents instilled in me a truth that belief can so often stand in the way of learning. When we come to a conclusion about something, it can be the end of our questioning and exploration.”
On the other hand, Peter read to us a passage from Mitch Albom’s ‘Have a little faith, a true story’ “ . It was about the key to happiness being found in finally being satisfied, being grateful. That’s it. That’s all.
We had a good discussion about wonder. For me it was wonder – rather than faith – that emerged from the evening as a common sacred ground. The joy and mystery that touches our hearts and minds and connects us with the soul of the earth, of the universe – is what is truly sacred beyond category or description. It is the territory where analysis gets left behind and creative expression begins.
The evening was a wonder. Peter’s courage and vulnerability touched us all. His stories found a home in our own. Our hearts were opened to listen and learn.