Open wide your hearts

Open wide your hearts, wrote Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians. In that light, I’d like to pray a variation on Psalm 51:15: Open my heart O Lord, and my life will proclaim your love.

Little things. God calls out to us in little things. Quiet whispers that flash by all around us and within us all the time.

All the time, God’s Love is revealing and offering itself, yet so often I miss it, partially or wholly. And these “little” things can change everything about how I experience life.

Among the many reasons I miss them is that in a world that’s troubled and troubling and sometimes painful to live in, it’s tempting to close my heart to protect myself. And sometimes, it seems necessary and healthy to do so, to occasionally become immune in order to digest life, get grounded in God, and function more fruitfully. It can be tiring and difficult to walk through life with a fully open heart, like Jesus Christ did. Certainly, as a child growing up with a dad who could be abusive, closing my heart helped me survive. It was a good idea at the time. The problem lies in the fact that it’s easy for us human beings to let being immune and guarded, even subtly so, become an unconscious habit: an unseen, life-denying habit. Healthy boundaries are one thing; a closed heart as a way of life is another. Before we know it, our defended heart is also keeping out things we most deeply need - like the soft, life-giving offerings of God’s love in all those little moments. Our vulnerable, open heart is a necessary channel. Opening our hearts more fully is a lifelong process.

I want to tell about one of those “little” moments from yesterday morning, but first, there’s a bit of a backstory.

In the week at El Hogar in September, there was so much to take in: physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. It was a great blessing, and also at times felt exhausting and challenging.

On the physical level, there were the rigors of airport travel, a time change, and days that were packed with activity. For me, there was also the disequilibrium of motion sickness from the plane and the El Hogar van that we traveled around in all week - on paved highways on steep, curvy mountainsides, on rutted dirt roads, and in narrow, jam packed city streets.  There were also the experiences of living in the volunteer house -  some infinitely beautiful, like getting to know other volunteers from St. Tim’s, other Cincinnati parishes, and from the Church of the Nativity in Port St. Lucie, Florida - and some challenging, such as sleeping on an uncomfortable mattress in a tiny bunk bed and sharing an always soggy bathroom with many others, a bathroom where there was sometimes water and sometimes not. I felt various effects from these things all week, often along with judgments of myself for feeling tired or effected by such seemingly minor things, especially in contrast to some of what we were seeing.

Our days were lovingly filled from the first rooster crow (literally) in the early morning darkness to late in the evening. Each day we traveled somewhere – to attend church in the city, to other El Hogar campuses an hour or more away, to home visits in the city, or on the side of a mountain way off the beaten path. We went on field trips with the kids to a national museum and to a huge athletic center. Each day we spent a few hours painting the conference room and the computer room. Many days we heard moving talks from El Hogar staff, students, and a graduate, Medardo Cardona - now a renowned artist who shared his childhood story and very moving work with us. Every evening we played with the kids – a different dormitory each night. There was so much to learn – getting to know individual children,El Hogar, Tegucigalpa, and Honduras. Not to mention memorizing Spanish phrases. On an emotional level, I realized midweek that the unexpected sadness I felt at not speaking Spanish reflected my heart’s deep desire to connect.

Strong feelings welled up all week. I often felt humility, a sense of helplessness at seeing poverty as I’d never seen it before, new perspectives about my own life, the sense of the universality of our humanity, vulnerability, and need for God’s love . I felt respect and curiosity about Honduran culture, inspiration from El Hogar students and staff and their luminous welcoming love and hope. I felt compassion tinged with sadness for the ways we get lost in violence, confusion, greed, and fear and how we hurt each other.

There's a lot of gang violence in Tegucigalpa and I felt sadness for the desperation of young men - there, or here in the U.S. - who join gangs and become violent out of deep, unmet needs to belong, to have hope. I could not help but feel for each child’s pain as I would feel for my own three children in such pain. I felt deep grief for the pain of children everywhere in grim circumstances, and how human potential can be desecrated and lost in poverty, war, and unjust societal systems. I felt so moved and grateful to see the salvation of children's dreams, talents, and possibilities at El Hogar. As Matt Engleby, Executive Director of El Hogar, told us as we debriefed on our last morning - in dire poverty, violent circumstances, or living alone on the street, children begin to lose their hope, their joy, their dreams, the light in their eyes, their imagination. How tragic is that?!  He told us that what he sees happen at El Hogar is the restoration of those things.

Spiritually, the week was, as Roger has said, a pilgrimage. It truly was a humbling, life-transforming journey to a sacred place. Claudia Castro, Director of El Hogar, told us: “This is a blessed place. God is moving in this place. You can look in the eyes and smiles of the children and see that . . .God is moving through their lives. God is touching our lives through their example.”

It is a blessed place - God’s love seems to shine palpably through the students, the profoundly dedicated staff, even in the rooms and from the brick sidewalks and off the colorful walls and murals everywhere. God’s love shines even though El Hogar is surrounded with cinder block walls, barbed wire, a guarded gate, and a city plagued with desperate poverty and violence.

It is a blessed place because God’s love is manifest there, the boundless, joyous, firm, and courageous love that Jesus Christ modeled with his open heart through every circumstance. This place re-taught me in powerful ways that there’s nothing more satisfying than serving God and spreading God’s love in this beautiful, suffering, confused, infinitely precious life and world that God has given us.  

Claudia concluded by saying: “If you give your life, your heart, your anything to serve God, you will be happy. . . If you don’t do this, you will feel empty and you will feel a longing. If you tell God: use my life, God will and God will be talking to you. You can choose to believe this or not. You can choose to live this way or not.” 

Her talk was followed by two high school students, young men with shining, earnest faces, bravely and generously sharing their stories with us. One of them - a top student, talented athlete, handsome, humble, and personable - broke down and cried into his hands after he told us his mother had only visited him once in his many years at El Hogar. Many of us cried with him.

We arrived back at the Dayton airport very late Saturday night. Alex dropped me off at my house sometime after 1:00 on Sunday morning. Later that same morning, on the altar during a service, Alex said to Roger and I, “I’ve got tears in my eyes, I keep crying this morning. I don’t usually cry.” I don’t remember what his tears were in response to, but I, too, had tears in my eyes, and I, too, had been crying throughout the morning.  What unexpectedly popped out of my mouth was: “Our hearts have been opened.”  Then more tears came and I couldn’t say more.  

But it’s true. Our hearts have been opened and we have been strengthened. Thank God! Yes, there was much to take in all week at so many levels. But the bottom line is this: through it all God was chiseling away at me, opening my heart in places I didn’t see myself or know how to reach. And through those openings love, light, grace and new freedom can pour in. For that gift, I have no words to express my gratitude. I am changed. I feel more alive. I am more clear than ever that I want to love fully, and not due to a commandment, but out of the spontaneous movement of my soul, for the joy of joining the flow of God’s love. I believe this is who we are.  

So. The “little” moment of yesterday morning, granted to me I believe, because of all that. I was just sitting in Room 6 in the early morning darkness, 6:45, a few candles glowing, waiting for the women to arrive for our weekly gathering for silent meditation followed by reflection and coffee. As the minutes ticked by, I wondered if no one would come, and then the thought came up, “Well, that would be OK because they are all here in my heart.” Soon though, one by one, they arrived, moving quietly through the candlelit room. Something unexpected happened in me then. Every time someone arrived, tears welled up as I felt how beautiful and strong and sweet each of them is, their vulnerable hearts, generous love, service, loving kindness, their devotion and goodness. I didn’t think all those words, I just felt it - warm tears and flowing love.

Seeing women come into a room for a prayer group is a little moment. Feeling flooded by God's love is not little. It is a gift of grace that changes everything. And it reminded me how much I want to do whatever I need to do to open my heart and follow God, to live in the truth of this. 

I pray to live in love. I pray for myself and for anyone who longs for the same. May our hearts keep opening each day to the fierce, relentless, tender love of God, of our hearts, of our teacher, Jesus Christ. May we notice all the life-giving “little” moments when God is informing us of this love.  May we live from there.

After returning from El Hogar, I just “happened” to come across this reflection from Steven Charleston, Native American elder, author, Episcopal priest, and retired Episcopal bishop of Alaska.

“Love is rising all around us, if we open the eyes of the spirit to see, rising all around, from so many who have not given up, from so many who hope and who believe, the witness of quiet hearts, the faithful family from every creed and culture, every tradition and community, rising up, pushing back fear, overcoming suspicion, finding new answers, trying new ideas, turning love into action, letting it rise up from broken cities and troubled towns, letting it rise up for all of us, not for the few, but for all of us, love, rising up all around, rising up in you and in me and in all of us.”