by Erin Bouman
Confess with your lips, believe in your heart. Paul says it twice in today’s reading from Romans 10. In the space of just six verses, for extra emphasis, he repeats the assertion, “Believe with the heart, confess with the mouth.” Paul is working here off a paraphrase from Deuteronomy: “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” Paul’s doubled description of nearness does something along the lines of Hebrew poetry, a typical feature of which is paired phrases—paired phrases, which interact with and interpret one another, the second embellishing upon, adding description to the first.
For Paul, the lips and heart may be two different body parts, but they are engaged in one activity. It’s one activity, because there is such a strong connection between lips and heart. What is in the heart flows up out of the lips. What comes out of the lips expresses what is in the heart. Paul states it clearly, almost adamantly. Heart and lips together: the experience and expression of faith.
There’s a phrase in English that gets at this unity, a phrase that actually takes it one step farther, compressing the activities of hearts and lips. I’m thinking here of when someone says, “My heart sings.” If you think about it, it’s an expression that condenses Paul’s double assertion, condenses it into one neat phrase: my heart sings. The two parts are so united the one does the role of the other, the heart does what lips do, it sings.
Now, if you, yourself, have ever had the opportunity to use this phrase, you know the unique feeling that comes with it. You know the extraordinary and wonderful experience of such a unity. You know that when what comes out of your mouth is what is in your heart—there’s nothing quite like it. It’s a feeling of deep rightness, of utter harmony. Heart and lips aligned, in tune, a perfectly paired duet, a two part singing of one great song.
That sounded just right. That sounded just lovely. But it didn’t sound exactly like how it usually goes. The truth of the matter is, my heart doesn’t spend most of the day singing. My heart and my lips are, in fact, all too often disconnected.
Sometimes the disconnect takes place because of distraction. We live in a world filled with distractions. It’s not breaking news. You know it. I know it. I know it, and rue it, and try to resist it. But awareness of distractions’ draw only gets me so far. Why is it, I wonder, that with all the things to pay attention to, what usually gets the short end of the stick are people—often the very people closest to me.
I’ll find myself agreeing absent mindedly to something my kids are trying to tell me, show me, share with me. “Yes, that’s nice,” I’ll say, without looking. “Yes, uh-huh, okay…” as I’m burying myself in the newspaper. They’ve gotten very good at calling me out in moments of such inattention, in moments when I say I’m listening, say I’m attending to them, but in my heart I’m doing something else. Distractions can disconnect our hearts and lips.
Or I think about more deliberate disconnects. I think of things we say, with full awareness, that are fully at odds with what’s in our hearts. I’m thinking of those false statements such as: “What a nice haircut.”
I’m thinking of statement like: “No you don’t sound like you are whining.”
I’m thinking of statements like: “Sure, I would be happy to take the Confirmation students on a two night sleepover weekend retreat.”
As false statements go, these are pretty mild examples. They’re perhaps not much more than instances of trying to be politic or polite—both of which can be important. But I know, and I suspect you know, of other, more serious, more severe examples. You can probably think of other instances when what the lips said did not match the heart. You and I can probably come up with deeper, more deliberate, more disturbing disconnects—examples we have heard, examples we have said.
Or, I think of the disconnect between lips and heart that can take place on structural levels, of disconnects that are institutional. As a corporate body, as a church or a school or a city, we say one thing, but our heart is not in it. I think about the all-too-often empty promise of public education, for example. We say every child in America should have access to learning, to the skills and tools needed to build a bright future, but how do we follow up on these words? With school districts tied to tax bases; with fragile, failing schools suddenly shuttered up, their students scattered. Structural disconnects seem especially insidious, easier to sense than isolate, let alone extricate.
Hearts and lips together? On so many levels, all too often hearts and lips—my heart and my lips—seem all too far apart. The lips say one thing, but it’s not from the heart, it’s just lip service.
I thought about this while reading today's passage from Romans. I thought about disconnects, about their deep and pervasive occurrence in my life, and it made me annoyed with Paul. (He’s good for that, for provoking annoyance, and argument. In fact, he has a solid track record of attracting just these responses.) Paul, I thought, you just make it sound too simple. You just make it sound too straightforward. It’s more complicated than that. The connection between heart and lips is not nearly so neat.
Maybe, I thought, it’s a modern thing. Maybe we’re just more complicated than that. We moderns, with our appreciations of the fractures of existence, our articulation of the self divided against itself. We’ve got all these issues we have to work through, all these layers that we have to uncover. Don’t just conclude that our lips and our hearts are as one.
I was thinking this, thinking that Paul was missing something about what it means to be human, and then I read a little more from Paul, a little prior to today's passage from Romans ten. Is Paul unfamiliar with the idea that one might feel one thing, but say another, that one might want one thing, but do the very opposite? Is Paul unfamiliar with the divided self? By no means! It is in fact in this very letter from Paul, three chapters earlier, where we find the classic, painful articulation of the self divided against itself. It’s that passage from Romans seven, in which Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” And, again, just a few verses later, Paul repeats again, for emphasis, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Paul knows all about the divided self. Paul knows about lips and hearts that do not match. Paul, who has spent much of today’s passage quoting scripture, Paul would also know well those ancient words from Isaiah: “These people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.”
Our hearts are far from God. In this Lenten season, this season of self-examination, of reflection and repentance, we recognize the deep dis-chord that pervades our world, the deep dis-chord that pervades our very being. In this Lenten season we recognize that our hearts and lips, so out of tune, need to be re-tuned. Strangers to ourselves, we need rescue and welcome. Prone to wander, we need a way home. We need something outside ourselves, to unite our selves. We need someone to summon us out of our disconnection—to summon us out of what we are, and to summon out what we can be.
Or, as Paul concludes his discourse on the divided self: Wretches that we are, who will rescue us from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
We are made a new creation in Christ. Christ is the one who reconnects our hearts and lips. Christ is the one who reconnects them, + reconnects them on the cross. While our hearts were far from God, God came near to us. God comes near to us in Christ, and lives in us. Christ is the word we profess. Christ is the word that is near us, on our lips in our hearts. Christ, the Word, lives in us, and it makes our hearts sing, a new song—God’s song.