Written on (and Spoken from) the Heart

This is my wedding ring. It’s a piece of yellow gold. And there’s a story written into it. My ring’s not inscribed with a date or a word or anything like that like some wedding bands are, but the story is in here, in the very molecular structure of the metal of my ring – every atom of gold carries a history that is important to me.

And when I tell you the story of my wedding ring, like I’m about to do, I’m not telling you the story of a piece of gold, I’m telling you a story about who I am and how I honor the vows of my marriage.

I knew the style of ring I wanted – a yellow band of gold, rounded edges, something that’d get all beat up, scratched and pitted over the decades, and show its history. But the idea of just going into a shop and buying this ring didn’t feel sacred enough for what I was going to ask it to do for me.

So, I asked my family if we had any old gold lying around, and they gave me as a gift the original settings for both of my grandmothers’ engagement rings and an old pinky ring that had belonged to my Italian grandfather. I took the rings to a jeweler and I asked her to melt them down and to cast me a wedding band with their gold.

All of my grandparents died before my wedding day, but they were there when I made my vows to my wife, Bonnie M. And every time I look down at my left hand, I know that they’re with me, adding their strength and their love to the promises – promises that are not always easy – to the promises I made to Bonnie.

This ring is a part of who I am. I created it. It represents me. And, in some sense, it writes me. It helps me to author my own story and my own destiny.

My wife, Bonnie, would like me to preface this next story with a disclaimer – we are not pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or planning on getting pregnant anytime soon. However, we were dreaming together about names for our, as of now and into the foreseeable future, completely hypothetical offspring. I would love to name a boy, Arcangelo, not only because it’s an awesome name, but it’s a family name – from that Italian grandfather’s side – that was passed down through generations of pinky-ring-wearing men and then hit a brick wall at Ellis Island. And Arcangelo can go by the American-as-apple-pie classic nickname “Archie” when he’s a kid. And he can grow up into the Italian nickname “Arcano,” which in Italian literally means “Arcane” or “Mystery,” and which was, incredibly, the name of my Wizard character when I played Dungeons & Dragons in Jr. High School. Obviously, you just can’t go wrong with this name. But Bonnie seems unconvinced. So, I say to her, OK, you tell me one.

Bonnie tells me that she’d like to name a daughter Beatriz – Bea for short. “Sure, it’s pretty,” I say, “but we don’t have any emotional connection to the name like we do with Arcangelo...” And my wife gives me one of those long-suffering looks that tells me she’s suppressing the urge to throw something at me, and I quickly add, “Do we, honey? I’m asking. Do we have a connection?”

She takes a deep breath and says, When I spent my semester abroad in Spain, I discovered the name “Bonnie” doesn’t really work over there. So, I took on the seudónimo Beatriz. Leaving the country and being on my own was a big part of my development as a person. I had so much fun, I learned so much about myself and the kind of woman I was becoming. And all those important memories are connected to the name Beatriz, in my heart. So, yeah, I think we do have an emotional connection to the name you arrogant little gilipollas.

And, Bonnie was right. With Arcangelo I was offering a family history. And with Beatriz she was offering something even more – a part of her soul, a name that’s written into her heart, a story that represents everything she would hope for her daughter.

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD.

For the ancient Israelites, “written on the heart,” or “written upon the tablet of the heart,” was about history; it was about memory; and it was about identity. Before the invention of writing, ancient cultures transmitted their history and their art orally. It’s been studied and it’s possible, through training and technique, to memorize, exactly, very long epic poems, mythologies, histories, laws, and sacred scriptures by ear.

Writing was originally developed for even more practical needs. The first writing, cuneiform, was made up of pictograms impressed into wet clay tablets to serve as records in increasingly complex trade relations. How many sheep did the Temple ask for again? Check the tablet – three sheep marks next to the temple mark. It was possible in the prophet Jeremiah’s time, 3,000 years later, to write an entire book down on a scroll that could be reread by any literate person for as long as the scroll lasted, and could be copied over and over again so that it could be passed down almost exactly over thousands of years.

Today, instead of rewriting something, we just cut and paste or scan and print. We can preserve whole trees of knowledge without ever reading a word from them. But even copying one scroll from another was too impersonal, not sacred enough for the scribes and the educated elites in ancient Israel. Instead of seeing the written scroll as an end for preserving history, they viewed it as a means for aiding them in continuing to memorize the texts as they had for thousands of years – to learn them by heart. A scribe didn’t copy one Torah scroll from another. A scribe memorized the Torah from a scroll – until it was written on the scribe’s heart – and then produced Torah from within.

This wasn’t about efficiency, I don’t think. It was about identity. The story of God and God’s people shouldn’t just be read off the page. It should be spoken from the heart.

The greatly influential 20th century theologian Paul Tillich wrote in his famous book, The Courage to Be, that we modern people are living in age of anxiety. We’re faced with constant existential crises that touch on all aspects of our lives – from ultimate meaning, to guilt and remorse, lack of control, loss of identity, doubt, and the timeless fear of death and non-existence. We are limited creatures and we worry about our limitations.

The word courage, of course, comes from the Latin word, cor, which means “heart.” Tillich defines courage not as bravery exactly, not as the specific act of, say, risking your life by running into a burning building. Rather courage is more generally a way of being. It is something that must become a part of our identity. Courage gets written onto our hearts. And courage looks into the face of all the things that make us feel most anxious – Is there a point? Is there a future worth working towards? Is there life beyond death? Am I good enough for anything? – courage looks ‘em right in the eye and says, “Yes, I see you.” And there in the presence of God, courage says, “And here I am.”

The closing sentence of The Courage to Be reads, “The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.” And where will that God appear from, if not, at least partially, from within us?

And, so, I think we want a heart with the right things written on it. We want a heart that knows how to tell the story of God’s relationship to us. We want a heart that knows how to proclaim the Good News to the world because we want a heart that can proclaim the Good News to us!

Beloved, I wonder, what is written is on your hearts? And if it’s true that we are one Body of Christ together, as I believe we are, I wonder what is written on the heart of this Body – of Broadway United Church of Christ?

I would love to hear each of you tell your heart-story to your church. Because every time you tell a part of your story you write it more deeply into your own heart. And every time you tell another person how God has touched your life, that story begins to write itself inside of you and before too long you’ll begin to call that story by name. And the name you’ll call that story is “faith.”

In the seven-Sunday season of Easter, beginning in two weeks, I’m going to be inviting seven of you to offer us a “Here I Am” testimony of faith that briefly answers three questions for all of us: Who am I? What do I believe or not believe? And why am I a part of Broadway United Church of Christ?

This is a personal spiritual exercise meant to help you write your own story upon your heart. And it’s a community exercise that will help all of us to write our story as a church upon all of our hearts. If you’re interested in working with me to offer a short, three-minute “Here I Am” testimony to your church in the Easter season, please let me know.

We need to know our own stories. And we need to know one another’s stories, to help us to know the big story we’re all a part of here.

Every week I write a sermon. I hope that every week I manage to write and preach it from the heart. I write the sermon. I preach the sermon. But the sermon also writes me. The sermon also forms me. Every time I have the privilege of preaching God’s Word, of telling God’s story, I discover something about myself. And faith gets written into my heart a little more deeply.