20 September 2007

Being Heart Smart

Today everyone tends to be "heart smart." We are concerned with cholesterol, with eating right and getting sufficient exercise to keep our hearts healthy and functioning at peak efficiency. Above all we work to keep the blood flowing through our hearts so that it reaches and nourishes every cell in our bodies. And we know that failure to do this spells death for the whole body as well. Our hearts are wonderfully dynamic organs which pump life throughout the whole. And yet, a single clot can still them forever.

In the New Testament, the word "heart" is a strictly theological term. What I mean by that is it refers specifically to the place within us, "Where God bears witness to himself." (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament). God is actually a constitutive part of the human heart. His ongoing love, his continuing and continual pouring forth of himself is part of what makes us human, what makes us to be most ourselves. The place, or perhaps better, the EVENT where this happens in us, is what the Scriptures call "heart". Let me be clear, in Scriptural terms it is not so much that we have hearts and then God comes to dwell within them; rather, it is the case that WHERE God dwells and is active within us summoning us ever anew and afresh by name to be, THERE is what the Scriptures call "heart." (By the way, I think this is part of what Pope Benedict is referring to in his book on Eschatology when he calls the human soul a "dialogical reality". Heart and soul are interchangeable terms in much of Scripture).

Like God himself, our hearts are dialogical or communal in nature, and just like with the physical organs in the center of our chests, it is through them that God's love flows through us and to our world, through us and especially to the rest of the Body of Christ. If that flow is stopped, our hearts die. If we refuse to allow this life to flow through us to others, if we try to hold onto it or refuse to pass it on, it will come to act like a clot in our spiritual lives and death will ensue. So it is that we are called upon to allow God's forgiveness to flow through us to others, his mercy through us to others, his love through us to the rest of his creation. It is actually only to the degree that we hand on what we have been given, only to the degree we allow these things to flow through us to others that we even receive them ourselves. While I believe it is true that God does not give us what we deserve (for we can never deserve Him), but rather what we will receive as gift, I think it is also true that what we receive as gift is what we allow to flow through our hearts to nourish and enliven the rest of the Body of Christ and his creation. This idea allows me to make greater sense of a recent lection from Luke:

[[Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you: a good measure poured out, pressed down, shaken together and running over will be poured into your lap. . .]] The ethics of the Christian is not one of quid pro quo, though this text can sound like it is. Christian ethics is a matter of dealing with others as God deals with us; it is a matter of freely letting flow to others what God speaks or pours forth in our hearts. To the degree we do this, the flow will continue with a vastness and generosity beyond all quantifying. To the degree we fail to do this, the very mercy God offers us as gift will stand unreceived as a clot in our own hearts --- whether shaped as fear or ingratitude or false pride, etc --- thus condemning us; the flow of life to our very self will be seriously restricted, and so too, fail to reach the world through us.

There is a second lesson in recent lections related to this dynamic and dialogical notion of the human heart. It involves what the psalmist was getting at when he said "I will walk with blameless heart" or what the author to Colossians was urging when he admonished, "let the peace of Christ control your heart!" Both phrases refer to a kind of integrity which is supposed to possess our lives (or be possessed by them!). Both are concerned above all with what or who is sovereign in (or controls) the human heart.

We know that the Christian life is above all an obediently loving life; that is, it is a life which is attentive and responsive, and while we are certainly called upon to listen and respond to the Word of God that comes to us from outside ourselves, most FUNDAMENTALLY, we are called upon to be attentive and responsive to this Word, to claim and embody the unique name which God speaks on a continuing basis deep within us. When the psalmist says he will walk with a blameless heart, he is referring, I think, to a life which is obedient in this way, a life where our own hearts do not bear witness against us. He is referring to a life where our outer selves and our inner selves are identical or in harmony, where what we are in the world is always an obedient response to the Word God speaks in the core of our being, and so too he is referring to what the author to the Colossians referred to when he said we are to allow the peace of Christ to control our hearts, namely an incarnational integrity born of attentiveness and responsiveness to the God who is part of our very being.

In one of the Gospels this week, a dead man was told by Jesus to "arise", and it is certainly tempting to want God come to us in such dramatic and miraculous ways. But in quiet, subtle, and equally miraculous ways, God calls us to arise out of death and nothingness at every moment. If we can only learn to hearken to this call deep within us, it will not only bring life on the biological level, but it will bring us the abundant life which is Jesus' gift to us. In light of this idea of the human heart, we need never fear that we are too far stuck in sin, too far removed from the living God, too "old" (in whatever way this manifests itself), or without fresh potential. There is quite literally a spring of living water at the core of our being, an ever-newly given identity where moment by moment God calls us by name to be. So long as we live, God dwells within us calling to us to "arise!" Where this really occurs on every level of our being I think we allow the peace of Christ to control our hearts and walk blamelessly in genuine integrity. Where this occurs, I think we are REALLY "heart smart."