>Hearing God’s Heart Sounds

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(Icon photo from OrthodoxPhotos.com)

John 13:23:

“One of his disciples–the one whom Jesus loved–was reclining next to him.”

Now, for whatever reason, many pieces of religious art–like this icon–tend to portray the beloved disciple with his head on Jesus’ chest, although the verse specifically does not allude to it. We got to briefly discussing that in my EfM class tonight. Someone had mentioned liking the image of “hearing God’s heartbeat.”

My mind immediately took me back to my training days, when we medical students would strain to learn new heart murmurs. Learning these was nowhere near as high-tech as today’s medical students get, with all sorts of simulators available. We had a few poor quality audio tapes and live patients, and that was about it. Woe betide the poor patient who showed up with a discernible murmur–it was a sure bet 15 or 20 medical students would line up to listen to it. Mercifully, most patients were pretty good sports about it, and some even liked the attention–to be a part of a young doctor’s learning.

So without a doubt, pictures like the one above make me think of the art of listening to heart sounds.

I knew from the beginning that I was not destined for cardiology, because my ability to hear subtle heart murmurs was not exactly one of my strong suits. Yet I remember the process of trying to actually hear them. So many times, I had to close my eyes to hear them. Intuitively, that made no sense. You don’t have to see someone’s chest to hear through a stethoscope. Yet it seemed removing all distractions and hearing them in the dark space behind my eyelids helped more than all the practice tapes ever did. It’s so easy to be distracted when trying to listen to God’s heartbeat, isn’t it?

Then the next thought that crossed my mind was that all those sounds I listened for in patients were pathologic sounds–the sounds of disease. What would it be like to hear a heartbeat so clean, so pure, it was perfection itself? Would we be in awe of its perfection, or would be only notice the “absence of disease?” What is the distinctive sound of the heart of God, beating in our ears?

Then I thought about those patients that enjoyed letting me hear their heart murmurs. I realize part of it was that they simply enjoyed being noticed, and being touched. They liked knowing that someone would walk out of the room, wiser for the session, and would go out and recognize it again in another patient, perhaps an undiagnosed one. How did Jesus feel, knowing he was contributing to the education of his disciple? How did he feel, knowing to some degree what lay ahead for him? Perhaps he was no different than those patients–it simply felt good to have hands laid upon him and feel the nearness of the disciples head to him. Perhaps he mused a nearly impossible question–how does a head understand a heart?

Finally, what changed for the beloved disciple after he heard God’s heart in his ears? What changes for us when we hear God’s heartbeat?

Oh, beloved disciple–if only we could hear what you got to hear!

>Thomas, no doubter is he!

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(Andrea del Verrocchio’s Christ and St. Thomas (1464-1483) at the Orsanmichele of Florence, Italy, Photo taken by Samuel Maddox, Canon PowerShot S330, via Wikipedia)

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

It’s that time of the year again…the time of the year I lean back in my pew and see how Thomas is going to be portrayed in the homily. It has been a minority number of years that, in my opinion, he gets a break. I don’t deny I have a “thing” about how Thomas gets portrayed in the “easy” way out, just as I have a “thing” about how Peter too frequently gets portrayed as a dim-witted oaf. Most of my life, so much of what I hear and read about this passage, at the very least, makes him a doubter, and at worst, makes him a near-disbeliever. Thomas gets a bad rap.

I read and hear the passage, and invariably think to himself, “Well, of COURSE I would stick my hand in there, too, you betcha!” After all, I AM a pathologist. I’d be pushing Thomas out of the way and going, “You had your turn, it’s MY turn now!”

History has left “who Thomas was,” in terms of his occupation other than “Apostle,” a mystery. I like to think he must have had some kind of job where it was important for him to do “hands on” work–maybe a ceramics worker, or a carpenter, or a farmer/rancher. I always wonder if before he started hanging out with Jesus, he made a living with his hands and his job required sensory feedback to do the job right.

On the contrary, Thomas had to be a man of great faith, in my mind, for one simple reason. Dead bodies are ritually unclean. To touch a dead body equals “unclean x 7 days.” Those days after the crucifixion and during the Resurrection had to be a time when what anyone close to Jesus needed most of all was the touch of each other. No one in Jesus’ inner circle would have wanted to put him or herself into a ritually unclean state willingly. So for Thomas to do what he did in the story, it actually shows the strength of his belief, not his disbelief. It means his inner being knew Jesus was alive.

Actually, I think the story is in John to illustrate something that is very deep and basic in all of us–our desire to touch God in some way that is not just “in our head” and not just “in our heart,” but “in our hands.” It’s no different than when we go forward for the Sacrament on the days we just want to feel the bread in our hand, and hold the cup, and eat and drink the substance of Christ. Not one bit. It’s no different than when those of us who like to serve on the altar feel when we realize we LIKE holding the cross aloft, or hold the Gospel book for the priest, or take up the offering, or bring the bread and wine forward. It’s no different than when we like to make repairs on the church building, or serve in a soup kitchen, or hold the hand of someone in prayer. We are wanting to feel the touch of Jesus’ self on our hands, and we are hoping, that if somehow it is in us at the moment, that others can feel it through our hands. Many of us love to “touch the holy stuff,” and truthfully, we like it when the holy stuff touches us back.

Sometimes, when I meditate on this passage, I start with “I wonder what Thomas felt in there, when he shoved his hand in Christ’s wound.” At first I sort of laugh to myself, “Maybe he really got to feel a spleen.” (Inside medical joke: One of the hardest things to actually palpate on the abdominal physical exam is a spleen. Only about 10% of healthy people have a palpable spleen, so if you’re feeling a spleen on the abdominal exam, odds on that person is ill from something or another.)

But once I can get past my own inside joke, my thoughts turn to the thought, “What does Jesus feel like, if you shove your hand up to the wrist in him?”I imagine Thomas’ hand, not so much feeling a “thing” per se, but feeling a light and a warmth. Or, horror of horrors, what if something grabbed on to his hand in there? He might have yanked his hand out in a hurry there, eh? Well…truth is we kind of do that, when we actually do feel Christ’s touch upon us. It sort of scares us. It may freak us out a bit. We might get those old “I’m unworthy,” thoughts. We get touched by something so pure and clean, we jump back and declare ourselves unclean.

That’s when we have to realize God touched US. It was HIS choice. He doesn’t care about your self-declared uncleanliness. He wanted to do it. We didn’t get grabby and profane God somehow. We didn’t do anything wrong. You reached in, and he actively took hold of our hand. All we have to do is hold still, and feel it.

Truthfully, I think Jesus wants us to stick our hands into his wounds. After all, he invited Thomas to do it. Just don’t pull back if you happen to feel something in there!

>The fig tree gets another chance

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(Photo of ancient fig tree from Think Hebrew)

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

The synoptic Gospels all have a “fig tree” story. Matthew and Mark have Jesus cursing the fig tree, and essentially the ultimate result being it withering. (Fig trees just can’t handle the Jesus Glare.) But Luke’s story becomes a parable about a gardener rather than a story about a rather capricious act performed by Jesus. Chances are, the Matthew/Mark versions have some degree of allegory in them anyway. Several scholars have pointed out that these stories occur in the week before Passover, as part of the prelude to the Passion, and that figs are not ripe that time of year in that region of the world anyway. In that light, Jesus wanting figs from a tree that is not in the season that bears them makes no sense. It is very likely that the fig tree symbolizes a larger entity–perhaps the temple, perhaps Israel, perhaps the priests who are in cahoots with Rome.

But the Luke story is unique in that the fig tree gets another chance. It gets a year of manure. Oh, how easy life would be if a little dung cured everything, right? That would make some parts of our lives a literal plant nursery!

My mind went to an odd place with this text this morning. I sometimes cringe at the trite bits of (mostly fundamental) Christianity on some people’s status updates. Don’t get me wrong–I like “faith based status updates” of all religious ilks–but I like the ones that challenge me, make me think. I try to do that myself. It’s the ones that look like a Hallmark Card that bug me, or the ones that reduce God down to “The Cosmic Coke Machine” where you put your prayer quarters in, punch the button that says “Coke,” and out comes a Coke, that irk me.

The one that gave me the urps today was when someone had alluded to something rough going on in their life, and one of their Facebook friends reminded them that “God doesn’t give us what we can’t handle.”

Ugh. I just really want to slap the computer when people trot that one out.

God, I believe, does not have a need to entertain Himself by testing us with difficulty to “see how we’ll do.” I just don’t buy it. In my mind, the crap that happens to all of us is simply part of original sin. My concept of original sin is that it is simply the knowledge of good and evil, and our awareness and pain that we know what suffering is, or what an “impossible choice” is, or what feeling what being separated from God somehow is like. Only a capricious, cruel, masochistic God would do such things. The pain of the world is simply “just there.” It is what makes up the stuff of the world. Our relationship with God is not as a “no pain, no gain” fitness coach.

But back to how this fits into the fig tree. What happens to the fig tree, when it looks a little puny? The gardener and the owner give it one more chance. Something is put around it, that most of the time, we do not consider a desired substance–manure. Dung. Waste. What’s left after we used up all the nutritional stuff in food. I’ve never met a single farm person that stepped in a cow pie and said, “Woo Hoo! I’m sure glad I stepped in THAT!”

Dung is basically not a good thing when we are talking about humans. It, at best, is a nuisance (as anyone with a plugged up toilet will tell you), and at worst, spreads pestilence and disease if you have too much of it piled up around you. But for plants, a little dung is a good thing. Plants thrive with a little manure spread around them. In the case of the fig tree, the manure is a form of hope. A revived fig tree will make figs, and figs ARE good for us. So in that sense, something bad for us, in another context, can eventually work to our good. But the “bad” has to break down a while. In the case of the manure, a fresh cow pie, sheep pellet, or donkey briquette is not useful at all, but dried up ones are. The waste has to age and morph a little.

This is the crux of, in my mind, how bad things work towards good. Yes, at the time they are happening to us, they are devastating, demoralizing, and frankly, hurt like hell. But time changes them. When they have been changed by time and the elements they become less toxic, and even if they don’t directly contribute to our growth, have the potential to contribute to SOME kind of growth, and the result of that growth can touch me. I believe LOTS of things can be handed to me that “I can’t handle.” But I do not believe they are handed to me by God. They are handed to me by the simple brokenness of the world. I do believe, however, that given time and awareness, God can show me where the nutrients are in them.

>"Give us this day our daily bread"

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It’s an oft-repeated line from a prayer so common, even people who haven’t darkened a church door in decades know it…but it is possible it means more than “feed me every day?”

I got to playing with the literal Greek in this line:

“Tou artos hemon tou epiousion didou hemin to kath hemerau”

Literally, “The bread of us the daily give to us these in the day.” Two of the words actually have some vagaries to them–Epiousion (“daily”) and hemerau (in the day).

Let’s start with epiousion. In secular Greek, this word is often used to describe the daily “soldier’s rations.” (Hence the picture of the MRE at the top of my blog post!) In particular, it described the soldier’s rations given the night BEFORE the battle, for the NEXT day (since they would be busy fighting.)

So is it possible this line actually means, “Give us today, the bread we need tomorrow?” Is it a call to be well-provisioned for the battles we may fight in this world tomorrow?

Let’s go a little further, and play with the word “hemerau.” This is one of those words where it kind of depends on the context. “Hemerau” is used to mean, literally, daylight in one context–a context where evil things happen in the night, in darkness, and are exposed in the light of day. In another context, it means a 24 hour day. Still a third context uses the word as “all the days of our lives,” or the last day of this age–which, in the context of the early church, would have been the day of Christ’s return. WHOA!

That really expands the line, when you realize what we may be asking for in this line of the Lord’s prayer, “Give us today the bread we need for the Day of Christ’s Return.”

Thinking about this made me all prayerfully poetic.

O God, provider of all things necessary for our lives–
You distribute our portion, whatever our portion is allotted to be.
It looks so big–so big, in fact, I’m not sure I can eat it all.
Why did you put so much on my plate?
But then you remind me that you didn’t expect me to eat it all today.
Some of this is for tomorrow, some for the next day,
And some for the next day after that.
Some of it is meant to fortify me for the battles ahead in my life,
And some of it is not meant to be eaten
Until the two of us can share it face to face
In the glory of light perpetual.

It is my portion, Lord,
I will accept it in love and humility,
Grateful that you feed me not just for today,
But for many days ahead
And have provided me enough
That I can share freely
With those who might be hungry
Because they misplaced their portion.
May they do the same for me. Amen.

>Mother, Jugs, and a Wedding Feed

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>John 2:1-11:

>"Unbind him, and let him go."

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John 11:43-44:

“When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.””

This week, my online EFM class discussed the Lazarus of Bethany story, and what really stuck to me was the last two verses in the story. I sort of imagine Lazarus kind of “mermaid hopping” out of the tomb–very much alive but very much stuck in his burial shroud.

That is why I like this particular artistic rendition of the story–it shows the community unbinding him upon Jesus’ command to “Unbind him, and let him go.” Lazarus, although alive, needed OTHERS to unbind him. That, to me, is just as key in the story as his resurrection–and isn’t that what we most commonly see in our own resurrections? We can read all the “self-help” books we want, and still only get so far. We can ask God to heal us from whatever our affliction is, but even then, His healing generally doesn’t come from a beam of light from the sky in Cecil B. DeMille fashion–it usually comes from the hands of other people who were sent to us. Even then, we have to acquiesce to the offer of their help. How many times do we bind ourselves even further by rejecting that help, even when it is smack dab in front of our own noses?

I seriously doubt that, when Lazarus crow-hopped out of that grave, and others rushed up to remove his burial linens, he yelled, “Never mind! I’ll do it myself!” I’m betting the faster they unbound him, the better. If anything, patience might have been a problem.

In the world of medicine, we see grateful unbindings all the time–being weaned off the ventilator or extubated, having the cast removed, getting the stitches out. But what is our natural reaction? We, at first, feel total freedom and relief–then turn right around and still “favor” to the bound side. We’re more careful on that formerly casted leg. We don’t want to leave the ICU yet even if we are breathing on our own, we keep putting our hand over our scar or looking at it all the time. I always wonder what happened after Lazarus’ unbinding, after the initial euphoria wore off. What did he “favor” in his recovery?

But most importantly, I wonder what he did differently the rest of his life. Did he become “extra careful?” Or did he run out and live boldly and in gratitude? That part of the story is lost to the ravages of time.

So, in our own “unbindings,” ask yourself, “Am I ready to let others unbind me?” If you can answer “yes,” then you are well into your own resurrections!

>Shekinah and Sammy Hagar and Year C of the Lectionary

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I was thinking the other day about how we are back in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary again–what I call “the Luke year.” I was sort of sorry to see Year B–“the Mark year”–come to an end, because Mark is my favorite Gospel, but I’m grateful that we dovetail Mark with Luke. It seems altogether fitting that we follow Mark’s Jesus–a very emotionally human, but somewhat exasperated glimpse of Jesus–with the healing Jesus we encounter in Luke. That sequence reminds me of myself at times–irritated, exasperated, occasionally short-tempered and volcanically cross–but then I so often take a deep breath and see the healing that comes. My own “coming to a point of understanding” moves from someone more like Mark’s Jesus to Luke’s Jesus.

So in that sense, I am also ready for the Year B to Year C transition again. To spit out my anger and irritation and simply listen and allow healing, for all the various slings and arrows of whatever issues graced my previous year.

It got me to thinking about all the times in any of our lives where we suddenly noticed “healing” occurred. It hardly seems that healing is a “conscious condition.” It so often happens under the radar, and when it is noticed, it’s a little more like what Sammy Hagar sings in Van Halen’s “Love Walks in”…

And then you sense a change
Nothin’ feels the same
All your dreams are strange
comes walkin’ in
Some kind of alien
Waits for the opening
Simply pulls a string
Love comes walkin’ in

Somewhere, sometime, when we weren’t looking, Divine Love “came walkin’ in.” We only discover it in retrospect, when something happened that made us realize “We’re handling it differently.” Perhaps it is manifested in a moment that previously triggered our chest to tighten with the familiar feel of post-traumatic stress. It might be in a moment when we are re-telling a story that reminded us of how we had been profoundly hurt, and when we have finished the story, we recognize the telling of it was painless. Maybe we enter a physical place where we used to feel our “hackles” rise every time we entered, and we didn’t even feel a twinge on the back of our neck.

It’s the psychological equivalent of those moments post-surgery when we suddenly realize our scar doesn’t hurt anymore, or those times after a virus when the fever breaks and we say, “Wow, I feel pretty good!”

But the fact remains that somewhere, in our healing process, Divine Love came walking in, cleaned up a few odds and ends, and simply sat down in our living rooms to watch TV. Many times, it happens at points where it doesn’t feel like any sort of “healing” at all. We generally don’t get the luxury of “instant healing” that we see Jesus doing in Luke, but we do often get the moment of “instant recognition” of where Divine Love snuck in on her little cat feet and healed us.

That’s the other magical thing about the way Divine Love heals. She doesn’t do a hit and run. She remains in the house as our family member, so long as we simply acknowledge her presence and thank her for helping around the house.

Have you ever noticed one of the first places Divine Love walks in, is often at the time we are least capable of consciously manipulating the system–our sleeping habits? When we hurt, whether it’s psychological or physical, we don’t sleep in our normal patterns. We may not sleep as soundly, or we wake up at odd times. We have trouble falling asleep or back to sleep. Our dream life becomes weird or scary, or just plain shuts down and we become “dream impacted” with sleep becoming a glimpse of the darkness of a death without God.

But often, before we even recognize our own moments of healing, something starts happening in our sleep life. To borrow from the opening two verses of Psalm 126, we become “like those who dream,” and our waking mouth becomes filled with laughter, and our tongues become more joyful. Things that had stopped being funny are funny again. Something that normally might not scratch our funny bone suddenly becomes so comical we can’t stop laughing. These moments of joy and laughter are reflexive–we are not trying to be happy or make ourselves laugh. But it all was preceded by the ability to dream again, and the ability to daydream.

What I invite you to do in the beginning of Year C in the Lectionary is to simply hear the Gospel stories in Luke with an ear to the healing within them. Take whatever has been damaged over Years A and B, and simply lay it on the altar and let the healing stories of Luke marinate them. Just be sure to notice when Divine Love comes walkin’ in.