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Toward Wholeness Blog

Matters of the Heart: They're Literal

The tribe of people who still believe in God, still pray, still seek to live out from the basis of spiritual realities, but aren’t involved in a faith community has risen substantially over the past decade and shows no signs of stopping. I’m in conversation with young people who are part of this tribe on a regular basis. Many of them have a sense that the faith of their childhood was mostly about upholding a moral construct and a set of religious rituals, but that it had little effect on their actual lives, and even less effect on the broader world.

I’m not going to spend time in my writings here critiquing the church for these possible shortcomings, though there’s surely truth in them. Rather, I want to come alongside both insiders and outsiders, doubters and cynics, and share how I believe “life in Christ” changes literally everything about a person, or can and should do so, and will if we allow it to happen. And by everything I mean everything, from financial and sexual choices to how we treat the 'other,’ to sleep quality and the building of neural pathways in our brain. Everything that the spirit of Christ touches changes for the better and our Creator’s intent is that the Christ-spirit should, indeed, touch everything.

That’s why in the coming season, I’m going to offer some writings here based on a single verse in the wisdom book called Proverbs:

Above all else, guard your heart, for from it flow the wellsprings of life (4:23)

I remember that verse punctuating moments of my youth and the favored interpretation was essentially: “Don’t look at pornography! Don’t use Tarot cards! Don’t go near anything that smacks of the occult, or watch bad stuff on TV, and above all else avoid sexual pleasure, alone or with others. If you fail at any of these, you’ll damage your ‘heart’ and that will lead to a life of misery.” My heart in this construct was never clearly defined, but the one thing we knew was that it had nothing to do with my resting pulse, or blood pressure, or heart rate variability; nothing to do with the muscle tasked with delivering life-giving blood to every cell in my body. “Heart” was some disembodied spiritual entity that would be damaged and thus unable to please God.

The problem with what I remember of this paradigm isn’t that there aren’t small seeds of truth there; it’s that what I was offered was a tiny damaged seed of truth while an entire field of truths about the heart remained hidden. The application was narrow, fear-based, and fragmented, giving no weight to the role of my physical heart in my spiritual well-being. Over the course of the past forty years, I’ve come to some very different and important views about this, and am convinced that if we begin to take our hearts seriously, as our Creator intended, it will both heal us and change the way we live. It’s these truths, and the far-reaching and liberating implications of them, that I’ll be sharing here for the next several weeks.

For now, here are two thesis statements that frame what I’m offering:

“Heart” in the Bible covers many things, including your literal, physical heart.

To the ancient Hebrews, the heart was the mind, the thoughts. When we are told to love Elohiym with all our heart (Deut. 6:5) it is not speaking of an emotional love, but to keep our minds and our thoughts on God.

The deeper I move into the pursuit of our Creator’s desire that we experience spirit soul body wholeness, however, the more I’m convinced that the heart to which God is referring is not just the spiritual, emotional, intellectual aspects of our being - it’s our literal physical heart as well.

I offer this largely because of my next observation below, but also because the reality is that there aren’t three separate parts to our being. We are, each of us, whole people. We have a spirit, a soul, and body, but each one is so inextricably tied to the well-being of the other two that it’s safe to say our ‘spiritual heart’ having to do with emotions and thoughts, and our ‘physical heart,’ aren’t two different entities. They’re one and the same thing.

We live in an era of fragmentation, labeling, objectifying, and separating. This is the result of enlightenment forces and a mechanistic view of humans. In this construct, we are basically the sum of our parts, and if one part is broken, we simply swap it out for a new part, or repair it via drugs, or remove it via surgery, and presto, the problem is solved. It turns out, though, that we’re not like cars or computers after all. We’re an ecosystem, like a forest, and you don’t take something out without everything else paying a price. If part of me is broken, my whole personhood suffers.

In light of this, I’ve come to believe that the Proverbs passage is telling us to pay attention to the state of not just our thoughts, emotions, and daily choices of what we consume and pursue, but to pay attention to our literal, physical heart. Here's why:

Your physical heart is the canary in the coal mine - the leading indicator of your holistic well-being

A lie detector measures your heart rate and blood pressure, among other things, because when you lie, your body displays a stress response, and you can measure it in your increased heart rate.

That heart response is a gearing up to fight. It happens in traffic too, especially when you're late to a meeting and the road becomes a battleground to get there in time. It happens when you're listening to someone's politics and you want to scream. It happens in the thickest moments of conflict with your spouse, children, parents, co-workers. It happens when you're lying awake because your mind is running through all the options for an upcoming significant event. It could be a presentation, a doctor's visit, making an offer on a house, proposing marriage, or burying a loved one. You're thinking, planning for contingencies, conjuring 'what ifs', and not sleeping. And your heart? It's beating faster than it should for someone just lying in bed. It's pumping faster so you have more of what you need to fight these battles, except you're not actually fighting anything at this hour, other than your body's desire for sleep.

Our thoughts, reactions in social situations, schemes and plans we concoct in our heads, regrets over the past or fears regarding the future have an impact on heart health, and often show up in as an increased heart rate and higher blood pressure. When our worries, vain ambitions, frustrations and anger, and helpless sense of victimization become chronic, it shows up as chronic stress, and is recorded as a rising resting pulse and plummeting heart rate variability. It’s as if our “off switch” is broken, and so sleep is also sometimes affected. The cause, though, isn't (at least not in these instances) your physical heart. Instead, heart is the diagnostic tool. It's shouting, "You're not made to live this way“ when we’re worrying, angry, anxious. If we can stop and pay attention when we get those signals, they'll drive us to seek these things:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” - Jesus the Christ (Matthew 11:28-30)

"...How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings..." Jesus the Christ (Matthew 23:37)

“In returning and rest you shall be saved;

in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” - Isaiah the Prophet (Isaiah 30:15)

You get the sense that our Creator wants us to live a life of 'rest' as our default, rather striving, fearing, raging, scheming, fighting, worrying, posturing, pretending, pursuing, and so much more. This isn't, as we'll see, a call to laziness or withdrawal from the very real sufferings of our world. Rather, it's a call to live in such a way that peace and rest are our default. We leave that posture of peace and rest to do things, but we‘ll return, always return, to peace and rest.

I wish it were true for all of us all the time but it isn't. We fight our battles, climb our mountains, seek our pleasures, and then play it out again and again, regardless of whether we 'succeeded' or 'failed.' Because there’s a hole in our souls, we‘re sometimes scheming to gain more of something: money, power, influence. And in our scheming, the stress response is running the show. Our identity isn't that of a child resting in her father's arms, simply receiving life and basking in being held. It's that of a warrior, scratching and clawing for every dollar, every promotion and pleasure, every inch of progress ahead of the other guy in traffic or in line. It's exhausting. It's not the way we're made to live. And it's not pretty. All these are, it turns out, matters of the heart - and your racing heart, diminishing sleep, higher blood pressure, and diminished heart rate variability are all shouting: "Wake up and change the way you're living before its too late" (of course, it could also be the daily bacon, but that's another writing for later.)

This, I believe, is the real meaning of 'guard your heart.' The very good news is that there's a path, time-tested through millenia, for making our way through this broken and weary world with a default posture of rest and I want to show that to you here!

So I invite you to join me here in my 'Matters of the Heart' series to find a better way, a way of peace, purpose, creativity, rest, reconciling power, and beauty. And if you know others who are looking for peace, rest, and a way through these very challenging times, please pass this on to them too. Thanks.

Note: This is not medical advice. Please consult your physicIan if you have any of the symptoms written about in this article.

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Well done, Richard! Evidence for such a connection has been present for over 20 years, and has been under-represented in both cardiology and faith literature. Thanks for opening this discussion. It is an important concept for people of faith trying to make their way in today's consumer based, performance oriented culture.

Joe Abate

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