Matters of the Heart

"Heart-rate, EKG (ecg), Heart Beat" by Anonymous is a public domain image

"Heart-rate, EKG (ecg), Heart Beat" by Anonymous is a public domain image

I visited the cardiologist yesterday.

After I told my primary care doctor that I had been experiencing some shortness of breath after mild exertion, she instructed me to undergo a stress test and echocardiogram. The latter test revealed that my ejection fraction (i.e., the ratio of blood pumped out of my heart to that coming into it) was considerably lower than it should have been, so she referred me to a cardiologist.

The good news is that my problem is, in the doctor’s words, “very fixable,” and that my heart may in fact have already started to repair itself. He listed a number of possible causes for my low ejection fraction, such as coronary artery disease, sustained hypertension, the lingering effects of a virus, or genetic causes. He guesses it’s one of the last two, since my blood pressure is fairly well controlled and the stress test revealed no blocked arteries. Because of a slight irregularity in one part of my EKG readout, however, and because there is a ten percent chance that the stress test missed something, he has ordered me to have a heart catheterization in the next couple of weeks.

I want to thank everyone who has expressed their concern for me and all who have prayed for me as I went for this visit. I kept telling myself I wasn’t worried, but as the appointment drew nearer I could feel my anxiety beginning to build. It is comforting to know that I have a caring church community in my corner. I’m not thrilled about the prospect of having that catheter snaking through my arteries to my heart, but it’s better than open heart surgery or cardiac arrest, so I’ll take it.

In reflecting on this experience, the main thing that strikes me is a sense of wonder at the marvelous complexity of the human body. We walk around every day in one of the most intricately structured, precisely balanced, delicate yet resilient machines ever devised. Our bodies are works of art of astounding beauty, and one does not need to deny the processes of evolution to marvel at God’s artistry so clearly on display in our anatomy. What William Blake said of the tyger can also be said of us: “What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

Many centuries before Blake, the psalmist expressed similar wonder at the workings of the human body and spirit, and attributed them to the same source as did Blake. He extolled God:

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works; that I know full well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth (Ps 139:13–15).

What is even more amazing than the structure of our bodies is that the one with the power of creation, the God who can frame the fearful symmetry of tygers, of lambs, and of us, cares for us intimately. As we heard from Jesus in last Sunday’s gospel lesson, “Even the hairs of [our] head[s] are all counted” (Matt 10:30).

For this reason we can entrust ourselves to God and experience freedom from anxiety. Jesus tells us this explicitly in the Sermon on the Mount:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matt 6:25–33).

Imagine the freedom and joy we would experience if we truly took these words to heart! We may never be completely free of worry, but our lives will be infinitely better and more faithful to our loving God if we focus on the righteousness and justice of God’s reign and leave the rest of it—food, clothing, our children’s safety, the functioning of the ventricles of our hearts, or whatever—to God’s care.