Song of the Heart

In contrast to all the bad news we’ve heard in headlines recently, there’s been quite a bit of good news in the world of nutrition. Some things previously said to be “bad” for us are getting get-out-of-jail-free cards. For example, early this month, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that drinking coffee is actually—they realize now–good for us. In a huge study that spanned 10 years, researchers found that coffee drinkers were less likely to die during the study period than their non-coffee drinking counterparts, no matter what kind of coffee they drank (instant or brewed, caffeinated or not) or how much they typically consumed. More research will need to be done to determine why, exactly, this is so, but early ideas are that coffee is an antioxidant and it decreases inflammation in the body, and improves how insulin is used. They suspect coffee may also help folks recover from colon cancer, protect against liver cancer, and ward off Parkinson’s disease. That’s a big reversal when you consider the barrage of caffeine-free drinks that have appeared on store shelves over the last few years.

We’re also learning new things about what helps and what doesn’t. Research published just last week in the American Journal for Clinical Nutrition found that people who regularly eat oranges are less likely to develop macular degeneration, which is a condition of progressive blindness. You apparently don’t have to eat an orange every day—even once a week makes a noticeable difference. I don’t know how much we believe the old saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” but maybe there’s scientific evidence—at least today, at least for now—that, “An orange this week keeps your vision complete.” (Apologies for that admittedly lame rhyme.)

And remember how dietary experts in the 80s pushed the idea of low-fat everything? Low-fat margarine, low-or-no fat milk. Omelets made with egg whites or egg substitutes. We traded whole, farm-fresh butter for much less tastier stand-ins, and we apparently made ourselves sicker—and heavier—as a result. Scientists now say as a country we’re more obese than ever, thanks to all the sugar and salt we added to our foods when we took the fat out.

When we follow the flow of popular opinion or accept a bit too easily perhaps the latest fad of worldly “knowledge” (notice the air quotes), we are always at risk of being caught up in an idea that is merely reinforcing what we want to see, what we want to believe, what we want to think. The truth “out there” is often fleeting and changeable and probably always will be, and if we base too much of our lives on it, we’ll be swept up in the chaos and have a hard time telling up from down, right from wrong, truth from pretense.

Whatever we’re hearing or reading—whether it’s an article about nutrition or a statement of world affairs—is likely to be a snapshot, a glimpse of a bigger reality, and not the whole truth in itself. Whatever we get is one part of an ongoing story, a partial picture that isn’t complete without the passage of time. We do our best to fit these snapshots together into some kind of coherent whole, but that’s hard to do when we don’t know all the parts we don’t know.

And the parts we don’t know may be important parts of the overall story. Maybe the scientists in the 1980s who claimed that fat was bad and sugar was good for us got their millions in research funding from lobbyists for the sugar cane industry. We can’t always know—in fact, I think we rarely know the whole story when we’re trying to make sense of ideas from the outer world. What will help us and what will hurt us? We make important choices in our lives based on our answers to that question.

Luckily, we each have our own, reliable, tried-and-true inner compass to steer by when we want to know we’re making good choices. And it doesn’t have much to do with what we find “out there.” It’s discovered by looking “in here.” “It’s not what you put into your mouth that causes you trouble,” Jesus told the people gathered on the lakeshore. And he pointed us toward our own hearts.

Just before this story in the NT, Jesus had been talking to the Pharisees and scribes, who had traveled the long, hot 60 miles from Jerusalem just to challenge him and expose his claims to authority. Jesus had just crossed the lake and was now in the land of GenNESsaret, and people had recognized him and sent word throughout the region. Crowds were flocking to him from towns all over, bringing their sick, begging him to simply touch a fringe of his cloak. Matthew tells us in verse 36 of Chapter 14 that “all who touched it were healed.” So we can imagine that power of Jesus—to heal, to teach, to speak truth—was fully revealed and evident to all who saw him that day.

The Pharisees and scribes had made this long journey, wanting to break up the great swell of public support that seemed to follow Jesus wherever he went. They ask him why he is breaking the commandment of God to “Honor your father and your mother,” because Jesus had recently taught that all good things come from God. In response, Jesus quotes Isaiah to them: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” That must have been a stinging rebuke for these self-righteous Pharisees who were so focused on the letter of the law, wanting to be admired and to maintain their status and positions of power.

In the NT passage Sherry read for us, Jesus calls the great crowds arounds him and begins a teaching about what it is that corrupts and tempts and defiles the spirit. It’s not what we put in our mouths, Jesus said. Not the hot fudge sundaes and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (which is good news, isn’t it?); it’s not all the things we eat or drink that fit into the “should” or “shouldn’t eat” column. It’s not even about whether we wash our hands before we eat—although ceremonial cleansing was one of the traditions wrapped up in the Pharisees’ question.

Jesus tells them, “it’s what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” The disciples, worried about such a cutting comment, hurry up to him and ask, “Do you realize that the Pharisees took great offense at what you said?” And Jesus shrugs off their reaction, saying, “Leave them alone; they are the blind leading the blind.”

Peter—who was always the gutsy, out-loud disciple—asks Jesus to explain this to them, and Jesus answers, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

In Richard Foster’s commentary, he says here that Jesus is communicating a very fundamental principle, showing his authority over the law of Moses. Foster says, “Jesus declares that the laws regarding ritual impurity no longer apply, since the dominion of God is breaking in. But the moral law has been intensified.” Jesus is taking things a step further for everyone—living in relationship with God is not about looking good but rather about being and doing good, from the inside out, he says. This is a whole new standard. No longer can those who want to look righteous simply do the right things for the wrong reasons. The reasons matter. The intention—the attitude in our hearts, the song at the base of it all—is what God cares about most. And out of that song—for good or for ill—arise the circumstances we meet in our lives every day.

Our Old Testament reading tells us that. It is a much-loved verse from Proverbs: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” About this verse, the Matthew Henry commentary says, “Out of a heart well kept will flow living issues, good products, to the glory of God and the edification of others.” When love is the song of our heart, we’ll care about the things Jesus taught: love of God, self, and others, compassion, generosity, truth, and kindness—and that goodness will flow out into our lives and produce good things in the world. Like creates like. By their fruits you shall know them.

It may seem next to impossible to “keep our heart with all vigilance” in a world that seems to reward the opposite. But we can notice when we’re feeling pulled and burdened, stressed or worried, and we can let ourselves stop and take a breath. We might say a prayer or wait quietly, maybe asking a question, “What does my heart need just now?”

We can also look around our lives to see clearly what our hearts are already creating each day. We may find beautiful things—harmonious relationships, integrity in our dealings, a peaceful, comfortable home—but we may discover things we need to work on, too. Our lives will show us where our energy flows—whether it pools around “me and mine” or it flows outward, blessing those who need it, and blessing those they love, and those they love. Such is the never-ending, always-giving nature of God’s economy.

Vigilantly keeping our hearts means making an effort to be honest with ourselves, to be willing to see when we’re not acting in accord with the higher angels of our nature. This kind of self-knowledge can sting a bit at first if we’re not used to it—when we realize we did something selfish, or said something that wasn’t true, or didn’t have the best interest of another in mind when we made a suggestion. Seeing ourselves clearly—with all our murky motivations and shortcomings—isn’t easy, but it is good for us. It creates in us humble, teachable hearts and from that springs compassion for others as well as a willingness to be taught, and a new recognition of our need for God, every hour of every day.

We know from our chaotic, changeable world that “out there,” we’ll find as many versions of truth as there are people and websites. But we do have an inward compass, a reliable compass that sings to us of God’s love and goodness, God’s care for all, God’s fairness, compassion, and tenderness. We can align our lives with that song if we choose. All it takes is a little vigilance, a little honesty, and the hope and the will to keep listening in faith.



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