Psalm 103, as rendered by Nan C. Merrill
So now you know why there are pieces of lumber on the chancel. (Granted, it may make no sense to you, or you may think it’s one of the goofier things you’ve seen lately, but at least now you have some idea of what’s going on.)
Now you know that, as part of our Lenten theme “In the House of the Heart,” we’re actually going to build and decorate the frame of a little house. Right here in the sanctuary, right here on the chancel.
But what is a house of the heart? And what do we know—or could we know—about the heart of God? And what does any of this have to do with Lent?, which we may think of as a place of wilderness and deprivation, an experience of encounter with the Holy, a time to confront our own wounds and wrongdoings and turn around and come home to God, and a commitment to follow Jesus to and beyond the cross.
Well, it seems to me that Lent is about life—not just our own lives but life itself and, especially, life with Jesus. And Jesus is an expression of God’s love for the world and everything in it—an infinite, self-giving love that takes on all the wonders and weaknesses of human flesh and becomes one of us. And Jesus’ life tells us we are meant not only to experience God’s mercy and grace, but also to become that extravagant, self-giving love, just as he did.
Which is to say: To become who we were created to be and to love the Holy One, ourselves, one another, and all the world as God does—without condition and without limit, with an open and ever-expanding heart that sometimes bleeds and often breaks. To become whole. To become one with God and all creation.
Which is to say: Not a purely a logical or left-brain exercise, not exactly a straight line from Point A to Point B or a process that can be planned, an outcome that can be controlled, a goal to be achieved, or even something to be built.
But, instead, a grace to be received, an identity to embrace, a transforming love to live into—like a house, or a heart, to come home to. To rest in. To be nourished and strengthened in. A place to let go of our fears. To become our whole selves. And from which to go out in peace and joy and gratitude to love God by loving creation, our neighbors, ourselves, and even our enemies.
Now I can’t blame you if a “house of the heart” seems absurd or just plain wrong. After all, the homes and families some of us grew up in were anything but safe or nurturing or, to lower the bar quite a bit, even functional. Some of us didn’t or still don’t even have homes. And, God knows, no one and nothing can contain a universe’s worth of love.
If we were to try to represent the heart of God—the beating rhythm of self-giving love—in human terms, we might well imagine someone like Jesus of Nazareth: a holy rabble-rouser who hangs out with all the so-called “wrong” people, offends the powerful by affirming the outcasts, tells confusing stories to convey a revolution of values, heals souls as well as bodies, works apparent wonders, and resists evil with love, even when it costs him his life.
Jesus, too, can seem absurd. After all, there have been so few humans like him—and most of us would rather not become martyrs.
And yet Jesus lived in the house of the heart. It wasn’t a particular dwelling in a certain place; it was something he carried within him and a refuge he sought out. It was any place or person where he encountered God’s love and grace. It could be a mountaintop experience or the sense of utter dependency and divine connection he felt in the wilderness. One day it might be a powerful expression of godly anger at injustice and, on another, the heartsick weeping of a humble man standing outside the tomb of his beloved friend.
In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the Weasley family borrows a tent for their trip to the Quidditch World Cup. From the outside, the tent “appears small and humble,” but the family discovers that on the inside it is “spacious and well-appointed.”[i]
“The house of the heart is like that,” says artist and writer Jan Richardson. “We think we know the size of it and what it is capable of holding. And then we step inside and start looking around. Even when we think we have learned its layout, have located every room and nook and cranny, a new chamber will suddenly open to us, and then another one, and we find ourselves drawn into rooms we never anticipated were there.”
Jesus lived in the house of God’s heart, and he invites us all to move in and make ourselves at home. The heart of God that Jesus embodies, the heart of God our scriptures describe, and the heart of God all creation reveals is a heart that is creative. A heart that is relational. A heart that is welcoming. A heart that is merciful. A heart that goes the extra mile and pulls out all the stops for the good of its beloveds. A heart that is generous. A heart that is gracious and spacious. A heart that, by the standards of power and might, is unreasonable and extravagant, foolish and unfair. A heart that is compassionate and steadfast, strong and just. A heart that is concerned for the poor and the weak, the stranger and the outsider, anyone who hurts, and everyone who feels unworthy or unloved.
Jesus also invites us to live in the house of our own heart, to fully explore every room and to know that we are not alone. That room filled with our every fear? He knows it well. The basement overflowing with unrealized potential? He’s been there. The attic filled with resentments and long-held hurts? The rooms that echo with emptiness, the windows that are cracked, the paint that is peeling? The corners grimy with grief, the shelves piled high with dreams, the closets stuffed with secrets and shame? He knows and loves it all, and beneath all our hot messes he sees beauty and hope, a real-life fixer-upper longing to be made whole, longing to be at home with God.
The heart of God is our home, and God’s home is in our hearts.
“The astounding ability of our heart to grow more spacious,” says Jan Richardson, “depends on something stranger and more wondrous than magic. It depends on the endless grace that flows through each chamber and every room, already preparing us for what we cannot see or know from here. It depends on the love that continually keeps vigil for us in our gladness as well as in our pain. It depends on the mystery that encompasses us even as it dwells within us.”
Sometimes hearts and lives, as well as houses, need renovation and cleaning out. That can involve tearing down as well as building out. Sometimes hearts, as well as houses, need a little tender loving care.
This Lent, let’s come home to the heart of God, and let’s welcome God into our hearts.
And to inspire us, and to represent the mystery of it all, let us build a house—“where love can dwell and all can safely live,” “where hearts learn how to forgive,” where a love feast awaits, “where peace and justice meet,” “where the outcast and the stranger bear the image of God’s face,” “where hands reach [out] to heal and strengthen,” “where all are named,” and all are welcome.”[ii]
Let us, together, build a house of the heart—and see what wonders it will reveal.
[i] These and subsequent phrases, as well as the overall theme, come from, or are inspired by, Jan Richardson’s 2018 retreat for women’s Christmas, “By Way of the Heart.” One of the “chapters” in the retreat is called “In the House of the Heart.”
[ii] These phrases are taken from Marty Haugen’s hymn “All Are Welcome,” 1994.