Our Leaky Hearts

In church yesterday, we sang one of my favorite hymns, "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing." I particularly love the final lines of the final verse:

Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.

Prone to leave the God I love.

Here's my heart, O, take and seal it.

Seal it for thy courts above.

"Prone to wander." Quite an understatement, isn't it? Yes, we're prone to wander. I'm also prone to running away after having a nice temper tantrum about how God just doesn't get it, how hard I have it. Prone also to putting my headphones on, turning up the volume, and turning my back on whatever it is God is trying to tell me, saying, Look God, I've got an awful lot of stuff to do here. Can we do this later?

The hymn writer has an appealing solution to our tendency to look for meaning, relationship, and truth in the wrong places—in work, romance, success, money, and stuff. "Here's my heart, God. Seal it up. Protect it, and me, from all the things that draw me away from you, from all the distractions that keep me surrounded by so much activity and noise that I can't hear my own thoughts, much less your voice. Put me in a nice, safe holy bubble where I can give my full attention to you all the time, instead of always having to struggle to find you and do the right thing in the maddening chaos of real life."

It's a beautiful hymn, but I think the final lines are more wishful thinking than a workable idea for living a life more in tune with God. I don't think God wants us to have sealed-up hearts, hearts protected from the assaults of life and preserved for some future encounter with God in the "courts above." I think God wants us to continue seeking him in the midst of our chaotic, troubling and troubled lives, with hearts open and vulnerable. In Ezekiel 11: 17-20, we read God's desire for his people:

Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.’ And when they come there, they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations. And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.

Love on the rocks from Flickr via Wylio © 2008 James Jordan, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

God wants us to have hearts of flesh—fragile, warm flesh—not hearts of impenetrable stone. God wants us to have hearts capable of loving and being loved, capable of hurting and being hurt, hearts open to the world, full of so much pain and so much beauty. Because if we only see that world from within some stony, sealed-up protective barrier, how can we know the God who made it? This verse implies that unless we have hearts of flesh, we won't be able to live as God wants us to live.

Instead of sealed-up hearts, God wants us to have leaky hearts.

In our culture, most of the time we're able to conceal the vulnerable, leaky nature of our bodies. We seal ourselves up with daily showers and deodorant and cosmetics, so that we present a nice, clean, polished image to the world. But our bodies are messy, leaky things. And they are messiest and leakiest during the most pivotal moments of our lives, during moments of rapid growth, great loss, or when everything in our life changes, for good or ill. Think of newborn babies, with their spit up and "blow outs" that can ruin several outfits a day. Think of a breastfeeding mother, with her soaked-through t-shirts. Think of weeping, when we are grieving a deep loss or celebrating a great joy, when our unspeakable feelings literally leak out of us through salty tears. Think of the moments of both birth and death, when all the muscles that normally hold in our embarrassing waste let go.

How dull and empty life would be without tears, without birth, even, yes, without death, because of how death forces us to make the most of the finite moments given to us. Our bodies are messiest and leakiest at those moments when we come face to face with the fleeting but priceless gift of human life.

We live in a culture obsessed with avoiding and covering up all that is messy, smelly, and embarrassing, with our soaps and Febreze spray and designer storage bins. We are tempted by visions of pristine homes with little evidence that actual human beings live there. We are tempted by punishing exercise, fad diets, cosmetic products and procedures, and plastic surgery to erase evidence that we've actually been living in our bodies—sitting in the sunshine, giving birth and nursing babies, using our bodies in ways that strain muscles and leave scars. We are likewise tempted to face the world with stony, sealed-up hearts, to turn away from pain in favor of distractions, to avoid showing our emotions lest other people take advantage of us, and to adopt a veneer of cynicism when it comes to things like love and sacrifice and God.

But living with leaky hearts means living fully in touch with the messy, smelly, hard, painful, embarrassing realities of human life. Regardless of the hymn writer's understandable desire to have sealed-up hearts, sure to make it to heaven untempted, unhurt, and in harmony with God, I think God wants us to have leaky hearts, fully open and vulnerable to what is most difficult, mysterious, and moving about human life. Seeking and finding God in that sort of pain and mess seems like a far more valuable undertaking than seeking and finding God in a cleaned-up, sealed-off world in which our hearts are protected from all the good and bad of human existence.

Author's Note: I shared this on my Patheos blog, where several readers said they think I got the hymn writer's intentions wrong. They read the "seal" imagery to be saying "set a seal on my heart," to be about asking God to mark us as his. This is certainly consistent with scriptures, and a much more appealing interpretation. We can't know precisely what the hymn writer (his name was Robert Robinson, and he was 22 when he wrote it) meant. I can say that the last part of the verse, asking God to seal my heart "for the courts above," conjures an image of asking God to keep my heart sealed and pure until I get to heaven. So you can read this post as being a response more to the image it conjures up in my head instead of to the hymn writer's intentions. Also, I think there is a strong thread in American Christianity today (more so in evangelicalism than Episcopalianism) that assumes purity to be the thing God most wants from us. So this is a response to that, too. In any case, my apologies to Robert Robinson, if he is listening from the "courts above," if I misinterpreted what he meant! On my Patheos blog, we've also discussed what a beautiful image it is that God's goodness (not God's anger or wrath) is what serves as a "fetter" to bind us to him. What do you think of when you hear this verse?

Ellen Painter Dollar is a professional writer and member of St. James’s Episcopal Church. She blogs for St. James’s every Monday, offering reflections on current events, family life, and parish life.

Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Her articles, blog posts, book chapters, and books have been published by the Christian Century, GeneWatch Magazine, the New York Times‘s Motherlode blog, OnFaith,Brain, Child Magazine, the Episcopal Cafe, Christianity Today, the Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) Foundation, Virtual Mentor (the American Medical Association’s online journal of ethics), and more. She blogs about faith, family, disability, and ethics at Patheos.