John Bennison Words and Ways | 2012 | March

Matters of the Heart Series, Commentary III: How Do You Mend a Broken Heart?

 Note: This is the third commentary in a four-part series entitled “Matters of the Heart.”  The series is offered as a corollary to the traditional seasons of the Lent and Easter observances. This commentary provides a fresh approach to Palm Sunday and Holy Week. As always, comments are welcome to enhance the conversation and continue the dialogue. A pdf version of this commentary to print and read can be found here.



A Papal Parade or a Palm Sunday Procession?


Even before Pope Benedict XVI’s chartered Alitalia Airbus A320 had touched down in Mexico last week, he’d issued a statement calling on the host country to overcome their “idolatry of money.” Why? Because it feeds the drug violence that has resulted in the death of 50,000 citizens in that country.

In partial response, at least one of the drug cartels had reportedly declared a temporary truce, in honor of the brief papal visit.

Dressed impeccably in a white cassock and skullcap, and surrounded by his security detail, the pontiff then climbed into his pure-white bulletproof Mercedes-built pope mobile; to thread its way through a 22-mile long human corridor of well-wishers that lined the route.

After resting 24 hours to recover from jet lag, the Holy Father was then whisked last Sunday by military helicopter over a 72-foot tall bronze statue of Christ in the city of Silao. There, beneath that towering figure with its outstretched arms, he presided over an open air Mass for hundreds of thousands of the faithful followers of Jesus, the Christ.  It was a sight to behold.

But now, with the upcoming perennial Christian observance of Passion Sunday – otherwise known as Palm Sunday — I could not help but think of that other storyline of peasants once cutting palm branches to carpet a dusty road outside Jerusalem; as a backwater Galilean rabbi entered the holy city of Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, to meet his own violent death.

Fast-forward, and I could not help but also wonder if anyone in the crowd lining the Pope’s motorcade route had repeated the line quoted in the three synoptic gospels (taken from Psalm 118:26) in those accounts of the Palm Sunday procession, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord?”

And thinking of those two stories together, I could not help but further wonder, had Jesus himself been invited to the supper held in his name for hundreds of thousands of his followers, if he would have first gazed upwards at that bronze idol towering overhead – a statue that surely would have dwarfed both him and the Holy Father many times over —  and seen not the slightest resemblance to himself.


… had Jesus himself been invited to the supper held in his name … would he have first gazed upwards at that bronze idol towering overhead … and seen not the slightest resemblance to himself?


The Holy Father looks with dismay upon some of the rampant human faults and failures all around us that are truly heartbreaking. He then speaks as a prominent moral authority; as if Christian faith is nothing more than a matter of defending a particular moral order that is in utter decay.

On the other hand, I recall how Jesus once told the heartbreaking story of a no-name father and his two sons; and, as it turned out, for whom neither the prodigal’s presumed immoral behavior on the one hand – nor the supposed rectitude of the resentful elder son on the other — was of any consequence whatsoever in the end.

As soon as the penitent prodigal came over the horizon, it was the father who ran with those outstretched arms, and embraced the one with whom he was once estranged (Luke 15:11-32).  It was this act of compassion alone by the one whose heart was broken that turned out to be the only prerequisite for reconciliation and a celebratory feast.

I look at the grandiose parade of a hierarchical church that seems preoccupied defending certain moral teachings, sometimes at the expense of the members of its own family of faith; even sometimes calling it instead an attack on religious freedom. And it makes one wonder if such messengers who come in the name of the Lord have lost sight of the utterly central message of the gospel of compassion.

Because, at the heart of the matter, this was once the only thing needed to mend a couple of broken hearts.

This is what this third commentary in this series that follows will address.


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Matters of the Heart Series, Commentary II: Heartbreak Hotel – On the Road from Heartache to Who Knows Where?

 Note: Heartbreak Hotel is the second commentary in a four-part series entitled “Matters of the Heart.”  The series is offered as a corollary to the traditional season of Lent and Easter observance.  As always, comments are welcome to enhance the conversation and continue the dialogue. A pdf version of this commentary to print and read can be found here.



Well, since my baby left me
I found a new place to dwell
It’s down at the end of Lonely Street
At Heartbreak Hotel.

 Heartbreak Hotel, written by Durden and Axton, sung by “The King”


When Elvis Presley found himself at the end of Lonely Street in 1956, he checked himself into the Heartbreak Hotel, where it seems the vacancy sign is always lit.  To hear him tell it, his baby had dumped him. Wise men may say only fools rush in, but apparently he couldn’t help himself.  And he wasn’t alone.  The gyrating rhythm and blues song that hit the top of the charts as the best selling single that year and brought Elvis his first million-seller had obviously struck a common chord for anyone who’d ever loved and lost.  And with such a winning loss, it sounded as if a part of him had died, as he put it:

Although it’s always crowded
You still can find some room
For broken-hearted lovers
To cry there in the gloom
And be so, where they’ll be so lonely, baby
Well, they’re so lonely
They’ll be so lonely, they could die.

 That’s what heartache is like.  It’s that feeling deep down inside that something has died.  It’s all about loss.  A life partner or the best friend you ever had dies, and it feels like something has been wrenched from your very core.  You think the pit in your stomach would almost be tolerable, if it weren’t for the heartache.

Or, a job, a profession, a career is eliminated in a flash.  But you can lose more than simply your livelihood, reputation or even self-esteem.  When you take into account what you’ve done with so many years of your life, and what you have to show for it, you realize there can be a whopping sense of loss; about the meaning and purpose of your days that leaves a void in its place that goes straight to the heart of the matter.

Or, a neighbor can’t pay the mortgage, so they default on their loan, and become another statistic and casualty to the American dream of homeownership.  But they lose more than a house.  If a “home is where the heart it,” as the saying goes, then they lose a little bit of their heart, as well.

The first commentary in this four-part series on Matters of the Heart explored that universal affliction, namely hard-heartedness.  But an equally human condition none of us seem to escape if we live long enough is the heartache and heartbreak of loss.

“It’s better to have loved and lost,” another old adage goes, “than never to have loved at all.”  That may be true, but I’ve found it’s little consolation for folks when the loss is so fresh, and raw and real.  It’s like saying, well, things could always be worse. As true as that may be, it hardly matters.  What matters is a broken heart, and a place we inevitably seek to dwell, at least for awhile. I call it Heartbreak Hotel.

Outside Nashville, across the street from Graceland, where Elvis once dwelled, there is an actual establishment known as The Heartbreak Hotel.  A fashionable boutique inn consisting of 128 rooms, it bills itself as “taking its cues from the legendary hospitality and personal style for which the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was known.”  It sounds like a charming place, but I don’t know what their occupancy rate might happen to be.

On the other hand, back in 1955, Tommy Durden and Mae Boren Axton had indeed written that hit song that was recorded the following year by Presley.  The lyrics to the song were based on a true story that had appeared in The Miami Herald; about a man who had destroyed all his identity papers, before leaping to his death from a hotel window.  Behind, he’d left a suicide note with the single line, “I walk a lonely street.”

Apparently, for all his wandering, the man with no name never found a place to come with his heart in his hands, and find refuge.

Not to put too fine a point on it, if we would undertake to reflect on all the matters of the heart, then it somehow seems fitting to pause and check in along the way at that place called heartbreak; and with those inevitable experiences of heartache and loss.


… it somehow seems fitting to pause and check in along the way at that place called heartbreak; and with those inevitable experiences of heartache and loss.

When a recent tornado roared across a wide swath of a Midwest state, it ripped one man’s 3,000 square foot home from its foundation and blew it to kingdom come.  His comment on the evening news was one we’ve all heard many times before.  “I’ve lost everything,” he explained, choking back the tears. “But we’re alive.”

 So, while we’re at it, we might as well acknowledge that despite our losses we’re also still alive to tell about.

All of which suggests to me there’s not only something worthwhile in the journey upon which we’ve embarked; but that there’s also an end to all our exploring that’s more than merely overnight accommodations.

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Matters of the Heart Series, Commentary I: Heart of Stone

Note: Heart of Stone is the first Commentary in a four-part series entitled “Matters of the Heart.”  It is offered as a corollary to the more traditional season of Lent and Easter observance.  As such, this first commentary is preceded by prefatory remarks that provide for the reader a framework for the four commentaries that follow.  As always, comments are welcome to enhance the conversation and continue the dialogue. A pdf version of this Preface and Commentary to print and read is found here.



Matters of the Heart


“Ah, but I might as well try and catch the wind.”

Refrain to an old song by Donovan


Recently a plainclothes undercover police officer was staking out a neighborhood in Sussex, England, where law enforcement was trying to combat a spike in home burglaries, when he received a radio call from a closed-circuit TV operator, who reported someone acting suspiciously in the area.

The operator continued to track the suspect, but every time the figure would dart into a side alley or turn another street corner, the police officer would radio in to report there was no trace of the phantom figure.  Time and again the TV operator would briefly spot the suspect and update the officer. “You’re hot on his heels!” the operator cried out at one point.

After the frantic pursuit had gone on for nearly twenty minutes, a sergeant happened to come into the control room at the police station, recognized the suspect on the monitor as a member of his team, and realized the cop on the beat had, yep, been chasing himself.  True story.

It seems one of the most elusive characters we can ever try to encounter is ourselves.  Our true self, some like to call it.  And, as egocentric as we tend to make our lives, it is surprising that we have trouble nonetheless recognizing our own shadow.  You might as well try and catch the wind, one might say.

It seems the most elusive characters we can ever try to encounter are ourselves.  Our true self, some like to call it.

It is precisely because of this that some of us deem it wise and useful to perennially pause and take stock of ourselves, and our relationship with those around us.  In the context of the Christian tradition and faith journey, this kind of introspection is sometimes called Lent.

It is not meant to be yet another exercise in self-indulgence, but self-examination; expressed in a willingness to open the mind to new ways of thinking, and the heart to new ways of acting towards others.  Consequently, it is customarily a time to practice more concerted acts of charity; as if, with practice, it might become more habitual.

And simultaneously, it is a journey that takes us to the heart of the matter; where we ask the kinds of questions Marcus Borg poses in his classic, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith.

What is the heart of Christianity? What is most central, the heart of the matter?…  As an organic metaphor … what is the animating source of Christianity, without which it would cease to exist?  (It is) something deeper than the intellect and the world of ideas. … The heart, this deeper level of self, is the ‘place’ of transformation.  What is it about Christianity that gives it power to transform people at the ‘heart’ level?

This is what is best about the traditional observance of a “holy” Lenten season, which leads to the celebration of transformation more commonly known as Easter.  So it is that it begins with ancient words of admonition and invitation.

The prophet bids us “rend our hearts, and not our garments” (Joel 2:13).  The psalmist’s verse implores the Holy One to “create in me a new heart … and restore a right spirit within me.” (Ps. 51:10)  And the Galilean spirit sage instructs, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Mt.5:8)

Such a journey leads us from believing things about Christianity, especially Easter (including many things many folks really no longer believe, and for good reason, I would add), to a new way of being Christian; of actually integrating head and heart in such a way that it has both intellectual integrity and emotional authenticity.

Ultimately, this all suggests a richer life of faith lies in a re-emersion deep within the matters of the heart; where we can both identify and experience those oft-touted virtues, like charity (love and grace), generosity of spirit, humility and empathy, forgiveness and reconciliation. These are, indeed, the matters of the heart, because they reveal, restore and transform the best of what the Christian tradition is all about. This is what this series of four commentaries will explore.

We begin, however, with the simple acknowledgment this is not a simple task. Hearts grow cold, even stone cold. For it seems as though we often spend so much time chasing after so many other things.  It’s as if we would do our best to distract ourselves from our true self and what lies at the heart of the matter. If we’re honest about it, the task of actually catching ourselves in the act of inaction, distraction or self-deception is not easy, but it is possible.

I liken it to Sally the dog, who’ll run in circles, chasing her own tail.  But fortunately – and unlike the hapless English bobby — she’s smart enough to know it’s her tail; and skilled enough to periodically succeed in actually catching it.  But once caught, she quickly loses interest; as if the important thing is the reassurance of knowing who’s really who, lest the tail wag the dog.


Commentary I:

Heart of Stone


Left: Woman Caught in Adultery, Qi He, China, 2001

Text for Context: Early in the morning Jesus showed up again in the temple and everybody gathered around him. He sat down and began to teach them. The scholars and Pharisees bring him a woman who was caught committing adultery.

They make her stand there in front of everybody, and they address him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone women like this. What do you say?” (They said this to trap him, to have something to accuse him of.)

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