Hearts figure prominently in my personal narrative.
My daughter Meredith underwent open heart surgery to repair a hole in her heart while she was just a toddler.
While Meredith was still a preschooler and Patrick was loitering in Joy’s womb, my mother Trudy had a cardiac arrest. She fell to the floor behind the deli counter at which she worked and died instantly.
When I was a preschooler and again starting in Middle School, my mom and I lived with my maternal grandparents. My grandmother Marie stayed at home because she had what people back then called a weak heart. The common wisdom of the day warned her against exerting herself. From time to time she would have heart spells that forced her to lie on the sofa and place a glycerine tablet on her tongue.
There’s a funny thing about these three women. Each of them had some challenge with her physical heart. And yet when I think about what it means to live wholeheartedly, my daughter, my mother, and my grandmother come instantly to mind.
When the biblical writers refer to the heart, they have in mind a spiritual reality: the very center of our being. While they may have located that function deep within the human breast, they did not reduce it to the physiological processes of the heart as an organ.
Our mind, our emotions, our passions, and our will all intersect in the heart. We live not merely because the heart pumps blood. Instead, we get out of bed in the morning, persevere through adversity, sacrifice temporary pleasures, seek the well-being of others, dance for joy, weep with sorrow, and laugh until we cry because we have set our hearts on something. On someone.
That’s what hearts do. They draw the very meaning of our existence from setting themselves on, by devoting themselves to, by relying utterly upon something beyond themselves. In other words, the heart inevitably seeks a god in whom to find rest.
Jesus is thinking of the heart along these lines when he says to his disciples, “Let not your heart be troubled.” (John 14:1)
Now when we 21st century Americans think of people having a troubled heart, many of us think that they are sad or anxious. In the contemporary imagination, the heart is the seat of our emotions. We also have difficulty seeing the value of hard emotions like grief and sorrow.
So, it is not surprising that some of us hear Jesus’ words to mean something like this, “Don’t cry! It will be okay!”
This is especially the case when we hear this passage read at Episcopal funerals. I’ve heard, “It’s selfish to be sad, she’s in a better place.” Some congregations never use terms like “funeral” and scrupulously avoid using the actual title of the service in the Book of Common Prayer: The Burial of the Dead.
Instead, they call funerals “A Celebration of Life” and insist that everything be upbeat. Grief, after all, is scary, painful business. And so they hear Jesus saying to the bereaved, “Don’t feel that way. You’re supposed to have faith.”
From everything the Gospels tell us about Jesus I don’t believe that he would say any such thing. Instead, I suspect that he would sit down in the dust with any of us when life had laid us flat on our backs.
He wouldn’t say, “Don’t feel that way.” He didn’t say it to his disciples the very night before his crucifixion. What he said was, “Let not your heart be troubled.”
Or, to put it another way: Don’t lose heart.
Don’t let fear or grief or disappointment or pain make you withhold yourself, make you half-hearted. Be the wholehearted person God created you to be.
And being wholehearted brings us back to those three women with whom we began: my daughter Meredith, my mother Trudy, and my grandmother Marie. Each of them displays a dimension of what it means to be wholehearted.
Let’s start with Meredith.
Remember that I told you that she underwent open heart surgery. On the day following her procedure, Meredith was taking only Tylenol, and that was just to keep her temperature at normal levels.
She kept sliding out of the bed. On her stomach and the incision on her chest! Finally, her nurse gave her a portable monitor so we could just let Meredith run up and down the hall laughing at her relieved and horrified parents.
Meredith overflows with life in fits of laughter. She cuddles even mangy dogs and in her arms they somehow become cute. Anyone else’s good news sends her into giddy celebration. Meredith’s arms are wide open to life’s goodness. To God’s goodness. Those open arms make her vulnerable. They also make her alive. That’s wholehearted living.
My mother Trudy was wholehearted in a different sort of way. She lived through WWII in Austria. Allied bombs fell on her town every day. Neighbors turned her in to Nazi authorities for suspicious behavior, so she spent the last portion of the war in a concentration camp. Later, two of her children died: my brother Joseph and my sister Marie.
And yet, when life would from time to time leave me in a dusty heap, my mother would pick me up, dust me off, and repeat this refrain: “Remember, tomorrow is another day.”
My mother was never afraid to get her hopes up. She persevered through war, imprisonment, and a parent’s unthinkable grief. Not because she felt powerful enough to make things turn out the way she wanted or smart enough to work an angle. My mother just believed that God would not let her down. Not that bad things would never happen, but that God could and would redeem even the most heart-wrenching circumstances.
My grandmother Marie simply had a different center of gravity than many of us.
Once, when an ambulance had come to take her to the hospital, she stopped the EMTs as they were wheeling her out of the front door. She remembered that mechanics had had my car for much longer than they had promised and that it had caused some aggravating disruptions in my life. She called me over and said, “It’s not fair that they haven’t finished your car yet. I hope they get it done soon.”
This woman did not have a weak heart. At least, she didn’t have a weak heart of the spiritual sort. My grandmother’s concern for others was a habitual practice, not an occasional grand gesture or some theological principle.
She didn’t put it in these words, but she believed that when Jesus said take up your cross and lose your life to save it, he meant basically, “Get over yourself and you’ll find yourself.”
I tell you these stories because they give just a glimpse of three untroubled hearts. They are not immune to grief or sorrow or disappointment. On the contrary, an untroubled heart is a vulnerable heart. It gives itself away. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, this means that—when a heart is what it is supposed to be, when it is truly untroubled—it will be stretched and probably broken.
But that is what God designed hearts to do. To give themselves away. And in giving themselves away, finding the God in whom they will find rest.
This sermon was preached at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Lake Charles, Louisiana.