I saw a picture of an Ethiopian “Bleeding Heart Baboon” and cringed to see the center of its chest open and red, the sides curving inward around the hole leading to his heart.
Perhaps the picture is disturbing because it depicts a part of being human – the vulnerability of our hearts. Harsh words, failure, and rejection pierce our hearts like a stick stabbed into the exposed heart of Ethiopia’s baboon.
So we learn to protect our heart: Don’t reveal too much; attack or withdraw when threatened; conform; avoid risk. We armor our hearts to safeguard our vulnerability.
But lately I have been challenged that armoring my heart doesn’t just keep bad things out, it locks every good thing in. I am learning that all human connection, every creative act, and each opportunity to bring good into the world requires my open-hearted vulnerability.
Christmas helps me find the courage I need to live this way.
Christmas celebrates a baby born in a barn to teenagers far from home, threatened by a murderous tyrant, and stinging from the shame of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Who is more vulnerable than the newly-born Jesus?
That was just the beginning: Jesus’ vulnerable birth inaugurated a vulnerable life. He lived in open-hearted risk and suffered rejection and betrayal from His family, His friends, His hometown, and the religious establishment. He set his face toward a death both agonizing and shameful.
But through this life of open-hearted vulnerability Jesus crafted the ultimate acts of creativity and love: the rescue and recreation of the human race.
How did He do this? How did He keep from withdrawing or attacking to protect His heart? I believe we learn His secret later in the story as He stands before Pontius Pilate.
Pilate says, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?”
Jesus answers, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above,” (John 19:10-11).
Here is our key. Jesus lives an open-hearted, vulnerable life, not because He trusts mankind or any one human being. No, Jesus lives this way because He trusts His Father.
This, then, is how it is done.
When my heart is threatened in love – when criticism looms, or when someone is cold – I am not naturally open-hearted like Jesus: I withdraw and self-protect. I retreat inside my armor. But who is loved by me when I do this?
And in creativity. Hmm. When my kids peek over my shoulder, I shut my laptop. I quake before I click “publish.” But who can read and find they aren’t alone if I shut my words up in a drawer?
In both these things – in creativity and in love – I need the courage of Christmas. The gifts of love and creativity cannot be given and received when my heart is armored.
My family saw the movie “Frozen” this weekend. I cried through it, because it is a vibrant picture of what I am learning.
One sister, Elsa, has special powers to work winter magic: snow storms, ice castles, and talking snowmen. But her gift is dangerous too; she injures her beloved younger sister, Anna. To protect people from her powers and to shield herself from their fear of her, she locks herself away, first in her room and then in a glistening tower of ice. She represents the armored heart: Frozen.
Anna, her sister, is the opposite: an open-hearted lover of life and of people. She never stops throwing herself at the door her sister shuts in her face. Though she suffers, she does not allow rejection to induce her to shut the door of her heart, and she will not rest until her sister opens the door of hers. She represents open-hearted living: Warmth.
In the end Anna’s sacrificial adoration unlocks her sister’s heart, and Elsa learns that open-hearted love is the secret to moderating her powers. She comes out of hiding and the kingdom thrives under her gifts.
Anna has played the role of Jesus: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock,” (Rev 3:20), and “Greater love as no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,”(John 15:13). And Elsa has learned to live with an open heart, bringing her gifts and her love to her world.
The movie affirms what Jesus showed us at Christmas: all love, all creativity, all good birthed in the world comes only from the warmth of open-hearted living, comes as we open the door to Jesus who knocks and join Him in knocking on the doors of others.
So when I feel tempted to withdraw and protect, to refuse to bring my face to the world – in love or in creativity – I pray for the grace to trust so that I can live with open-hearted warmth, like Anna, like Jesus.
I cannot blindly trust that I won’t experience rejection or pain, but I can trust my Father “will fulfill His purpose for me” (Psalm 138). And I can trust that the gifts of my open-hearted living are like the bread and fish a boy gave to Jesus to feed 5,000 people: enough in His hands.
What gifts are you tempted to keep from us for fear they are either not enough or too much?
May we take courage from Christmas for the power behind all love and creativity: open-hearted living. Amen.
All images copied under licensing permission of Wikimediacommons.com.