>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!

>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!