An Overflowing Heart

How well do you know your heart? Is it just an organ that goes about the thankless but important task of beating the way it should moment by moment, keeping the blood pumping through your veins and your body working properly? Is your heart filled with warm emotions like love and hope and anticipation? When disappointing things happen, do you feel your heart sink in your chest? When something frightens you, does it skip a beat? When you feel sad or lonely, discouraged or overwrought, does your heart ache and long for comfort?

These hearts that are beating within us right now—they each have their own heartbeat, their own rhythm. Just like our fingerprints are different, our heartbeats are uniquely ours, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, depending on our emotions and activity. Just think of that: seven billion people on this planet, and every one of us with a unique heartbeat, especially our own. Last year, an article in Smithsonian Magazine showed that scientists are actually developing a way to use heartbeats as unique passwords for electronic medical records so patient data is protected and inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t the right heartbeat or the right authorization.

In addition to the vitally important biological function of our hearts, King Solomon tells us in the passage from Proverbs that the heart is also the seat of wisdom and the wellspring of right action. He wants his listeners to write his words on their hearts. He adds, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”

What we hold in our hearts is important, Solomon says, because the circumstances of our lives—the experiences we meet, the relationships we create—begin right there.

George Fox also placed a lot of importance on the role of the heart in the life of faith. In an epistle he wrote when he was sick in prison in 1674, he said, “the gospel, which is the power of God, brings life and immortality to light in every one of your hearts” and he ended that passage with, “Now every man and woman will have a testimony in their own hearts of this order and fellowship [of God], being heirs and inheritors of it.” The heart, as George Fox seems to see it, is the place where we meet God, the crucible where we burn away misunderstanding and learn to live with love and light.

I’ve had hearts on my mind all week because of the passage we heard from Matthew. Jesus is talking about good and bad trees and how each brings forth fruit consistent with its type. A good tree—apple, pear, plum—will bear good fruit, as you would expect it to do. And a bad tree—whatever a “bad tree” might be, perhaps a diseased ash or an invasive species, like the Honey Locust—the bad tree will bear bad fruit or bad results, maybe spreading itself further and taking over the forest or dropping leaves and limbs thanks to the blight of hungry ash borer beetles. But it was the next sentence that caught my attention: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”

In the day and time of this teaching, Jesus is delivering a strongly worded message that no doubt riled the Pharisees as he called them a brood of vipers and suggested that they were bringing forth evil things from evil hearts. He also said our words are not meaningless, idle chatter but creative speech that has an impact on our outer world—for better or for worse. The way we use our words—to lift up and encourage each other, to tear down and divide, to heal or to accuse—can tell us something important about the state of our own hearts.

I once heard a teacher say, “If you want to know what your thoughts look like, look around.” She was suggesting we look not just at our immediate surroundings to see what they reflect back to us—dirty dishes? An orderly house? Beauty and color, or lack of it?–but she also suggested that we examine our relationships, our priorities, and how we spend our time, money, and energy. When we look at our lives this way, with this kind of gentle curiosity—we can get some insight into the values we hold in our hearts. If we choose, seeing things clearly, we have the opportunity to tweak things a bit. If we’re happy with what we find, we can just keep splashing our souls on the walls and enjoying the effect.

The practice of using Quaker queries is specifically designed to help us see what we don’t see as we seek to deepen our faith—to notice whether our exterior lives are showing themselves to be consistent with the inward principles we hold dear. In fact, the very first query in the Faith and Practice of the Yearly Meeting of Friends in Britain is this:

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

And you can hear how the abundance of the heart overflows in the phrasing of the second query:

Bring the whole of your life under the ordering of the spirit of Christ. Are you open to the healing power of God’s love? Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you. Let your worship and your daily life enrich each other. Treasure your experience of God, however it comes to you. Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.

If we haven’t been in the habit of really listening to our hearts, this may seem like a strange concept, but a little bit of trying will prove it true. We’ll always recognize the voice of our own hearts when we make the space and time for it—that still small voice has been with us all our lives. We may have heard it when we met our spouses; we feel it when our children are around, or  we’re feeling especially close to God. There is an intuition, a knowing, a peace that we recognize.

Sometimes old hurts get in the way and block our ability to listen to our hearts; when we hold grudges against each other, when we stop looking for the good in others, when we pull back and shut down, the inner voice gets quieter, colder, more cynical, less trustful. I also think that’s a different voice—not the heart but the wounded ego, which responds to hurt or fear with defensiveness and force. That’s what I think Jesus was getting at when he spoke so pointedly to the Pharisees. Full of power and pride, they were arrogant and making a game of faith, not caring about the good of the people or even their own souls. What arose from the abundance of their hearts wasn’t light and peace and curiosity but anger and greed for power and status.

Pema Chodron, the first American Buddhist nun and the author of the book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, says that the practice of gratitude is a great antidote for a shut-down heart. She writes, “Beginning to tune into even the minutest feelings of gratitude softens us. If we begin to acknowledge these moments and cherish them, then no matter how fleeting and tiny this good heart may seem, it will gradually, at its own speed, expand.”

There’s also a simple but powerful exercise in the little book, Attitudes of Gratitude that suggests an easy way we can get to know our hearts a little better. Simply pick a day and in the morning, pause every hour on the hour and make a mental list of everything that went wrong during the preceding hour. Perhaps the traffic was terrible, somebody honked when you didn’t turn fast enough, you were late to an appointment, or got turned around at the mall. The weather was cold and gloomy. And maybe your spouse complained about something ridiculous.

Next, in the afternoon, every hour on the hour, stop and notice everything that went right during the preceding hour. Maybe the cat curled up on your lap. An old friend called out of the blue. The sun came out, sandhill cranes flew overhead, and you were able to cross something big off your to-do list.

After both parts of the exercise are finished, notice how you felt. What did your heart sound like, in the morning and then in the afternoon? How did it feel? Was it contracted and shut down and discouraged, or was it open and light and feeling hopeful? And here’s the most important question: In which part of your day did you feel most alive and open to God? There’s your answer, whatever it is. That’s the kind of overflow we want in our hearts and in our lives.

“Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” Jesus said, reminding us that the words we speak are creative and will have an effect—for good or for ill—on the world around us. Let’s use our queries, our awareness, and our ability to care about and listen to our own hearts, to ensure that we’re good trees, bringing forth good fruit for an achingly—and increasingly–hungry world.



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