Wholehearted

When you think of the word wholehearted what comes to mind? Maybe children playing on a beautiful summer day, or an orchestra in full song, an athlete competing, striving for first place, or maybe a person deep in prayer. Wholehearted—whatever we may be doing when we feel that way—has something to do with being “all in,” completely engrossed in whatever we’re doing, whatever we’re committed to. It gets the complete focus of our hearts.

But being wholehearted goes farther than just our tasks and interests. Wholehearted is also a state of mind, a way of being in the world without doubts and contradictions and distractions. Merriam-Websters defines it as being “completely and sincerely devoted.”

To be wholehearted in our faith means that our hearts are “all in;” we are living what we believe, that with God’s help we are learning how to live out our faith, step by step, even in the midst of this challenging world. We’re doing our best to follow God’s Light as we understand it, trying to follow as it guides us through our days. We’re all works in progress and none of us are perfect at this yet, but we mean it, and we’re trying, and our hearts are seeking God.

Jesus said that’s the kind of faith God desires from us most of all, when we turn toward God in our hearts and worship in spirit and in truth. Not a lot of outward ritual. No need for big extravagant prayers  and shows of righteousness, like the Pharisees did. Just a simple, true and pure connection, reaching out to God in love and trust. What parent doesn’t yearn for that kind of authentic, loving closeness?

But of course we’re living in a time that doesn’t make that easy. And maybe it hasn’t been easy in any age, because turning toward God is always the the individual’s choice, whatever is happening in the world. But especially when there is rancor and upset all around us, it’s hard to keep a heart that’s open to everyone, come what may. Our trust in one another—and I’m talking about us as a country, not as a meeting—has been frayed in recent years. We are more wary of strangers, especially those with ideas different from our own. Headlines continually tell us how divided we are. We may believe them.

And that feeling that our world is fractured makes it even harder for us to know what’s true, to feel safe being open to each other, to trust our authorities, and find a way to respect other peoples’ views, even if they don’t perfectly line up with our own. As people of faith, we need a way to keep our hearts safe, but also to be part of God’s ocean of light, bringing something loving and true and good to the world. If we wall off our hearts, that’s not going to happen. We need a better, surer, more eternal answer.

In our Old Testament reading today from Psalm 119, we heard King David’s ideas on keeping hearts pure and minds focused on truth:

How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O LORD;
teach me your statutes!
With my lips I declare
all the rules of your mouth.
In the way of your testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.

With his whole heart, David sought God, and later, in Acts 13:22, Paul writes that “God testified, “I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart.” Such a bond they shared—even though as you probably remember, David was a flawed human being, and he was in dire need of God’s grace and direction. And yet his heart was true, wholly seeking God.

You can hear from the psalm how diligently David tried to stay focused on the teachings and guidance of God. He wanted to fill his mind with these things so he wouldn’t get distracted by all the drama around him, thus splitting his attention and his mind. He understood—as we do in our current world—how easily outside things grab our focus and trigger our emotions. We so quickly get swept up in the outer world that we can lose our footing in the inner one. And then everything goes off kilter because that’s where, with hearts turned toward God, we find our strength and our hope and our truth.

In the fifth century the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early church, lived an austere life of obedience to God. They followed a strict spiritual discipline, and fasted and prayed as they sought wholeheartedly to deepen their spiritual lives. They practiced what is known as the Jesus Prayer, a simple prayer that invoked the name of Jesus as a blessing. Monks considered the prayer most effective when it was said continually throughout the day, and it was simple, so it was easy to remember: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

As the monks went about their normal daily routine, serving the community, preparing food, studying in silence, they prayed that prayer to themselves. And because the name of God is sacred, the monks believed that invoking it invited God’s presence and that God was truly with them as they prayed. The prayer wasn’t just a simple repetition of words but a deeper feeling of presence, offered reverently, in the sanctuary of their hearts. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. It’s an invitation—an invitation that is heard and accepted, instantly.

In our New Testament reading today we heard a much loved-passage in which Jesus is speaking to the crowd. One of the teachers of the law heard him talking and thought he sounded wise. So he asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was and Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’.” And he added a second commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The man appreciated his response and agreed with him, telling Jesus that those things mean more to God than burnt offerings and sacrifices. Jesus told him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Can you imagine what it would be like to hear those words directly from Jesus? You are not far from the kingdom of God. He was on the right track—he had the right idea, Jesus told him. This man understood deeply how God was reaching beyond Old Testament teachings of law and sacrifice, desiring true connection with His children “in spirit and in truth.” Our part of that relationship means we share and reflect God’s love—back to God as our source but also with all of God’s children.

While it may sometimes feel like a struggle to put God first in our busy and detail-filled days, loving others as ourselves may offer an even bigger challenge, especially in a climate of distrust and division. It is hard to love people we don’t feel safe with; to like people we don’t know; to overcome ideas and images we’ve picked up from somewhere that may have nothing to do with reality and certainty don’t come from love. We know in our hearts it’s neither fair nor right to lump people together and judge them—that very human tendency is the opposite of “looking for that of God” in each other. If we want to live out what Jesus tells us is the second greatest commandment, we need to let God’s light teach us how to put our guards down.

In her audiobook, The Power of Vulnerability: Authenticity, Connection, and Courage, author and researcher Brené Brown wrote about a subset of people she found—about 25% of all her research subjects–who were able to show up authentically and relate with equanimity to others, no matter how they acted or what they believed. The other peoples’ behavior didn’t change the way these people felt about them—they seemed able to live up to the second greatest commandment—loving others, even as they stayed true to and loved themselves. Brené Brown calls them “wholehearted” people. Her definition of wholeheartedness is “living and loving with whole hearts despite the risks and uncertainty.”

In her research, Brown found that wholehearted people share a number of characteristics that help them stay grounded and hopeful in their interactions with others. In her book, she offers 10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living. To increase our own wholeheartedness, she suggests that we can

  1. Stop worrying about what other people think and be ourselves
  2. Let go of perfectionism and be kinder to ourselves
  3. Celebrate how resilient we are and remember that we always have choices
  4. Seek to live with gratitude and joy, and get rid of our scarcity ideas (“there’s not enough to go around”)
  5. Do what we can to grow our faith and trust our intuition, and get more comfortable with uncertainty (trusting God helps with that)
  6. Stop comparing ourselves to others (that’s a big one) and nurture our creativity
  7. Spend more time playing and resting (doesn’t that sound good? How might you play today?)
  8. Trade our anxious thoughts for calm and stillness (Just notice when we’re revving up, and let it go)
  9. Listen to our hearts and spend more of our time on things that are meaningful to us (a simple look back at the end of each day will tell us whether we feel we did something good with your time or not)
  10. Take all opportunities to laugh, sing, and dance—all ways to enjoy and show gratitude for God’s good gift of life—and here’s a big one: give up being cool and in control (which is harder than it sounds)

Brown said that the single most surprising thing she learned about these wholehearted people is that they weren’t some superhuman subset of folks who did everything right or somehow won the lottery on good childhoods. They were people from all walks of life, with all sorts of life challenges, from broken homes and happy homes alike. But all the wholehearted people she met had learned to love while being vulnerable, which means they were open to the impact others had on their lives. If we want to be compassionate people, to care about others, to make a difference, we have to have hearts soft enough to let others in. And to truly grow in faith, we need to be vulnerable, because God’s Light will show us all the obstacles in ourselves that block our ability to love. But we have to let it in.

In closing I’d like to share a sweet and hopeful story from Swami Ramdas, an Indian saint, philosopher, and pilgrim, who lived in the first half of the 20th century. He had a great and wholehearted devotion to God, similar to what we hear in the lives of Brother Lawrence, Hildegard of Bingen, and our own George Fox. This is his story entitled, Invite God:

“There was a poor man in a country. He was very anxious that his king should visit him one day. But his condition was so poor that he could not make necessary arrangements to receive the royal guest. However, he expressed his wish to the king who at once agreed to visit him. The king knew that the man lived in a very small cottage. So he sent in advance everything that was necessary for his reception at the cottage. Royal messengers went with all the things and asked the man to make use of them and also cleaned the place, spread the carpet, arranged the furniture, made the necessary decoration and brought flowers, garlands, and so forth. When everything was ready, the king paid his visit. The man’s wish was fulfilled.

So, also, if we invite God to take His seat in us, He will do everything necessary. He will Himself purify our hearts and take His seat there. So the only thing we have to do is to pray to Him to come to us. Nothing more. He will see to everything else. If your heart is sincere, you will feel the need for His coming and He will surely come to you. If your life is disorderly, He will see that it is set right and when He comes to you once, your life becomes blessed.”

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