Looking On the Heart
A man comes into town, leading a young cow on a rope. Everybody knows who he is – he is very well known and respected. But people scurry inside. They bolt their doors and shutters. I wonder if the man’s expression is one of sorrow, or frustration, or fear. He was feeling each of these things. He had been sent into town on an errand he did not want to do, and for which he could be killed. He had loved Saul, the great king, but God had rejected him, because he had disobeyed. Saul did not do what God had commanded in fighting a violent, neighboring kingdom. He kept the king as his own trophy prisoner. He listened to his troops as they said they should be able to keep, rather than destroy, some of the best of the loot. God then sent Samuel to Saul to tell him that he was now decommissioned as king.
Samuel is heartbroken for Saul’s failure. He walks into Bethlehem with the oil with which to make the covenant with a new king. To the people, this makes Samuel an enemy of the man they know as king. This is treason. No wonder they lock their doors. No wonder the elders of the city approach him, shaking, to ask if he means them any harm. “No, no!” he says. “Just here to perform a sacrifice with this little cow. Come and do it with me. Jesse, why don’t you bring yours sons, too?” And when they got to the place of sacrifice, Samuel asked to be introduced to every one of them.
When Samuel sees Eliab, the eldest of Jesse’s sons, he is sure that he must be looking at the next king. The young man is good looking, tall, and well-built. Saul had been the tallest, most vigorous and handsome man of his generation – Eliab has got to be his successor. But God tells Samuel, “No – don’t look at a person’s build. My criteria for king are those things that can’t be seen with the naked eye. This strapping fellow is not the one.” And so Samuel sees the parade of seven of the sons of Jesse, and none of them is the one. The littlest one, out watching the sheep, is sent for, and David is God’s chosen king. He is ruddy and handsome, with beautiful eyes, but that is not why God chooses him. As God tells Samuel, “I look on the heart.” Lovely David has those qualities associated with the heart in that day – emotion, but also character, intellect, judgment, integrity, soul. As a very human king, he will act beautifully out of these qualities, sometimes, and sometimes he will not. For two women, in particular, his selfish choices will end in their awful violation.
God looks on the heart. For those of us who would prefer not to be judged on our physique, and who won’t be winning any beauty contests anytime soon, this is great news. Please, dear God, look upon my heart. And yet – what would God find there? Much that is admirable, and plenty that is not. Perhaps we should prefer to be judged by appearances – with a few bucks, they can more easily be manipulated! A good workout regimen, plastic surgery, the latest thing in diets, a little Botox, gastric bypass, lipids suctioning, a flattering new wardrobe and a talented hairdresser and voil à ! – we’re all there! We could never purchase our way to a lovelier or more faithful heart. The hard work is all ours to do; we just can’t hire a professional.
How do we refine our hearts so that they are lovely for God, and for all who care enough to pay such attention, to look upon? That’s what these weeks of Lent are about – self-investigation, repentance, the cultivation of faith within our very hearts and minds, doing an inventory of our hearts and then discerning what must be kept, what discarded, what improved, what drastically altered, and what is to be added anew. What is our heart’s true content?
I imagine that the “God who is love” looks upon our hearts in hopes of seeing love. Real love, selfless love, love for neighbor and healthy love for oneself. I imagine that God hopes to see a love so strong and motivating – a love with such depth of traction in the heart – that it is a love-in-action, a love that doesn’t stop with emotion but that expends itself in service, advocacy, courageous and selfless deeds of justice and mercy. I imagine that God looks upon our hearts in hopes of seeing faith – the profoundest trust that God is God, that the One who created the cosmos is moving with power through our lives and losses and joys, always leading us onward to salvation, accompanying us closely whether the path leads through deserts of danger or despair or through fields of lush abundance. I imagine that God hopes to see our same faith in Christ as savior, brother, friend, one who would lay down his very life for us, open heaven to us. I imagine that God hopes to look upon our hearts and see honesty – honesty with ourselves - the good, the bad, and the ugly; honesty with others, especially the unjust; honesty in our every dealing, even though it may cost us. And I imagine that God would look upon our hearts and hope to see generosity – a readiness to part with the good things that we have if they can lift up another – our time, our hope, our money, our possessions, our faith, our humor, and, of course, our love.
Leaders have to “have heart” as we see in the selection of David as king. Any heart whose content is pleasing to God is the heart that will serve its owner well throughout life, a critical guide. The poet William Carlos Williams wrote, “but it is wisdom to believe the heart. Columbus found a world but had no chart save one that faith deciphered in the skies. To trust the soul’s invincible surmise was all his science and his only art.” The best leaders anywhere, and the best citizens of God’s realm, have cultivated a faithful and truthful heart that is their compass above all other things, and that may be contrary to perceived wisdom. Everyone knows, for instance, that scrawny teenage shepherds shouldn’t be kings. But it is little David who will vanquish the giant that is his nation’s greatest enemy, and all with a childish... slingshot.
“Try to find out what is pleasing to God,” says our passage from Ephesians. Samuel had to do that – what was obvious and pleasing to Samuel turned out not to be so to God. I attended a lecture this past week by the Christian writer Marilynne Robinson; her novels Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home are the best known, but she is an essayist as well. She spoke on the subject of some Christians’ habit of not speaking, of not raising their voices or sharing their opinions publicly, on matters of faith – faith and public policy, faith and human welfare, faith and civil liberties, or biblical interpretation – a host of topics. We don’t do it because of our aversion to sounding like pompous people who are sure of what is pleasing to God. We have plenty of those people in our culture today, as we all know. No – we don’t want to become what we dislike at best or think sinful at worst – loud-crowing roosters who tell everybody else what is on the mind of God and how the people they have never liked anyway are also very unpleasing to the Almighty. But Robinson challenged us listeners to get over our hesitation to defer to our own spiritual modesty in the face of Christian bullies, or we let them carry the entire conversation about what is pleasing to God, even to some people’s hurt. We must proceed with all humility, of course, but also with faithful courage. We are not entirely ignorant of what is pleasing to God. How could that ever include torture? Many issues are more nuanced, but our summons from Scripture is to try to find out – to expend ourselves in discernment, and then robust conversation. We begin by looking on our own hearts, as well as on the hearts of others.
“Try to find out what is pleasing to God,” says the Letter to the Ephesians, not so we can become rule-lovers but life-livers and life-givers. Pray, talk, protest, work, love, and like Samuel, listen for a divine voice, small as a whisper. Speak with the wise. Consult the wisdom of your own heart. Sometimes those things that please God defy common sense, like the selection of a worthy king. What is pleasing to God are those worthy things that can be seen when looking on the heart, and so perhaps those things can be our guide – where, in whatever question is before us, is faithfulness, is love, is honesty, is generosity, is mercy? These things, we know, are pleasing to the God who is love. Where are they in our own hearts? Looking on our hearts, can the Holy One indeed see what is needed for leaders in God’s in-breaking realm of peace and salvation? Let us make the cultivation of hearts such as these our projects in this Lenten season and always.