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The Ear – Heart, Soul and Mind in San Luis Obispo

Heart, Soul and Mind, a Sabbath morning discussion circle, has been meeting at the San Luis Obispo Seventh-day Adventist Church on the California coast since 2007.  The co-leaders are Arturo Tabuenca, a managing partner with a firm that specializes in socially responsible investing practices, and Craig van Rooyen, a prosecuting attorney and poet (see his Spectrum essay on poetry here).

Some 20 or 30 participants, seated in the round, gather each week in a basement room of the church.  Before them is a glass etching that reads, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  What the co-leaders hope each of them experience is “the upwelling of life that Christ craved for his followers.” 

Here is their account of the thinking and practice of Heart, Soul and Mind.  (You can also visit the group’s Facebook page.)

Question: Heart, Soul and Mind is a Sabbath morning learning circle; you think of it as different from a “Sabbath School class.”  Tell us more about what it is, and describe one or two keys to making the experience what you want it to be. 

Answer: HSM is a space for people to be honest about their spiritual journeys, challenged by the thinkers we study — they often push us to cross thresholds — and inspired to solve problems in the real world.  From the start, we envisioned a community of seekers interested in encounter with the Judeo-Christian scriptures; we rooted ourselves in words spoken by Moses and repeated by Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.” 

That guiding principle has led us on an adventure.  As a result, we are willing to experiment with practices and partnerships that most Adventist groups would shy away from, including:

  • Hosting regular meditation practices, led by a Buddhist who finds common ground with the Christian principle of “abiding in God.” 
  • Partnering with Catholic nuns that unite children with their incarcerated fathers at a local state prison on Father’s Day.  
  • Sponsoring a lecture by John Makransky, a Tibetan Buddhist and an American professor of comparative theology at Boston College. 
  • Partnering as volunteers with a local United Church of Christ congregation to provide shelter for homeless women and families.
  • Encouraging the LGBTQ community to join us on the faith journey and enrich our class with their perspective.
  • Hosting a spiritual retreat on October 24-26, 2014, with one of Christianity’s living treasures, Brian McLaren.  (You can visit for details.)

In short, we don’t want to get comfortable with a set of beliefs that keeps us from experiencing the upwelling of life that Christ craved for his followers. 

Question: How do you construct community — the sense that Heart, Soul and Mind is a mini-Christian family — among participants?

Answer: First, we emphasize safety.  HSM is a safe place for people to share their intellectual questions and their life struggles.  We don’t compare people’s ideas or lifestyles to a fundamental orthodoxy.  

In addition, we have established a set of rituals for our time together on Sabbath mornings — intentional practices that help us connect with each other.  We start with BREW, a time for coffee, pastries, and conversation; then we move into a time of spiritual sharing before communal prayer; that leads into a discussion of the week’s reading that always ends with music and time for quiet contemplation.

Finally, we emphasize action.  A sense of community grows from working together to address problems in the real world.  For this reason, we make it a habit to actively break out of our Sabbath morning circle and bridge the — all too often — wide gulf between a passive Second Coming belief system and the Gospel call to engage here and now.

Question: Do you bring in guest teachers, and are some taken from the membership of the class? 

Answer:  We have a group of regular teachers with different backgrounds and outlooks — pretty evenly split between men and women.

Does your class attract people who may be on the “edge” of Adventism — people who may be coming in, or be quite unconventional, or even be in danger of going out?  If so, how does it happen?  Is intentional effort put into doing this?

Answer: Honestly, we’re not that interested in defining ourselves as a particular type of Adventist — or as being inside or outside of the church.  Curiosity, open-heartedness, a willingness to grapple with how the Word becomes flesh in our lives — these are much more important to us than whether someone is an Adventist, or a member of any other religion. We are all wrestling with how to live a modern life within the present reality of the Kingdom of God. We believe this is an adventure. We believe it’s a practice. And we believe it involves asking a lot of questions that lead deeper into mystery.

Question: The Sabbath School quarterly is a curriculum.  Do you use it?  Or do teachers bring what they feel important at the moment as the topic for the day?  Or do you have a curriculum of your own — a plan, or series of shorter plans, for discussion?

Answer: We don’t use the quarterly.  We began Heart, Soul and Mind by teaching and studying straight from the texts focusing on stories where people had direct encounters with Christ — hungry for our own.  We’ve done a series on the life of Moses, using Joseph Campbell’s writings on the Hero’s Journey as a way to re-imagine the impact of this great story on our lives.  We’ve done a series on The Sermon On The Mount, informed by Tolstoy’s life and thinking.  We’ve done a series on the Psalms of Ascension.  One of HSM’s most defining stories has been Jacob wrestling with the Other: the process of discovering a new identity.  

Most of us are not academics, but we are all deeply intellectually curious and hungry for authentic encounters with the Mystery.

Question: You’ve mentioned “thinkers” you study, and now you’ve referred to Joseph Campbell and Leo Tolstoy.  What are some of the other books you’ve studied together?

Answer: Some examples are Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved; Richard Rohr, Falling Upwards; Rob Bell, God Wants to Save Christians; Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion; Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark; Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love; Desmond Tutu, God is Not a Christian: And Other Provocations; Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity; Samir Selmanovic, It’s Really All About God; and Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith.

Question: Your class is intellectually adventurous — you take up matters many would be uncomfortable with.  So how do you maintain good relationships with the rest of your congregation?

Answer: Our congregation has been very gracious in allowing us the freedom to follow our spiritual curiosity and to experiment with different practices.  We’ve never viewed ourselves as being in competition with the more traditional Sabbath School class or with the main service.  Nor do we view ourselves as church reformers.  If people are moved by our program, they attend.  If they aren’t, they don’t.  

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