One out of four people have this PFO, although only some know it's there. Mine was discovered when I went to the emergency room to explore symptoms resembling a heart attack and stroke. Blessedly there was no heart attack and no evidence of a significant stroke, but an echocardiogram done with bubbles revealed this heart defect.
When a PFO is present, there is a risk of stroke. Clots can travel through and to areas of the heart and brain that otherwise would not be allowed. These clots can obviously cause problems.
I am glad that the problem was discovered prior to a major episode. Now it can be monitored and/or repaired as required.
Not everyone is so lucky with their ailments. I'm thinking of my niece Marica. I'm thinking of my Aunt Joyce. I'm thinking of former colleague and friend Mary Jo. I'm thinking of Uncle Dick and Evy. And Dudley. And Mark. And so many others who had some type of "hole" that wasn't diagnosed or couldn't be treated effectively enough.
Actually, this is the second time I've discovered a hole in my heart. A few years back, without knowing what it was, I experienced heart-hole symptoms. Unfortunately there was no e.r. to go to for that particular hole. It wasn't treatable with an aspirin a day, and there was no "button" or "umbrella" procedure to close it permanently.
My attempts to self-medicate weren't sufficient, either. In fact, they were harmful.
In her book "Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy," Anne Lamott talks about how we "fold" ourselves in order to show achievement, to protect those around us, and to shield ourselves. "We got creased in those places such a long time ago that it seems hopeless to begin the great unfolding now. Our integrity got broken. ... Big parts of us got broken, parts of our hearts, minds, and beings." (pp. 46-47)
When I read these words this week, I was reminded of the hole in my heart which had been forming for many years of my life, and which only around 2012 began to show through my folds. It emerged as an existential crisis, an identity crisis, a professional crisis, a spiritual crisis and a marriage crisis. Some might categorize it as a mid-life crisis. The process was painful and rough for me and many others around me. I definitely didn't handle it all well, but perhaps that's exactly what uncreasing the folds reveals: that anyone can have a hole that isn't easily closed.
"I want to unfold. I don't want to stay folded anywhere, because where I am folded, there I am a lie." These words from Rainer Marie Rilke, which Lamott quotes, resonate deeply with me now. Much of my life had been a lie, not in the willful, agnostic sense, but rather in the obedient, suffering sense. In the end, however, I found what I needed for the resulting hole to heal. And I learned that life without folds leaves one vulnerable, and some may take advantage of that vulnerability, but in the end it's the only way to live.
Hearts and holes are on my mind this week as my Church of the Brethren sisters and brothers gather in Grand Rapids, MI for the Annual Conference. This ecclesial body had a lot to do with my first hole. I went to many conferences with my heart hole hidden away in a fold.
I think there are a lot of heart holes converging on the convention center and Amway Grand Hotel this week. Some folks are well aware of their holes, where they originated, how they've been (mis)treated. Other folks are living with so many folds that they have no idea whether or not there's a hole, or how big it might be. Some might suspect a hole, but don't really want to know.
Collectively, I sense a big hole in the heart of the body right now. Again, some see it clearly, others not at all, and some simply ignore it.
There are two approaches to heart holes (trust me, I've experienced them both!). One approach, ignoring it and concealing it, made it much worse. If it had been a biological hole, it would have killed me. Since it was an emotional and spiritual hole, when it finally showed up there were no physically fatal consequences, although there were some incredibly agonizing and difficult steps toward healing.
The second approach, like with my PFO, shows that when we know something's not quite right, good pursuit of symptoms can lead to significant discoveries. Those discoveries then lead to a thorough exploration, and the information gathered from the exploration will determine active steps to live better with or correct the problem.
Something is not right with us Brethren. There is dis-ease among us. No matter our theological ideology or our political -ism, we feel it. There is a hole in our heart, and has been for quite a long time now. We've tried covering it up. We've tried folding it in. We've tried any number of "treatments." And yet it's still there.
I wish I knew what the solution was. If it were as easy as writing the 'correct' position paper on any number of topics, I suspect it would be cured by now. But it's not. If energetic blended worship could fix it, we'd be all better. If an adequate amount of ice cream and toppings were all it takes, our consumption would have cured us. But none of this has happened.
The symptoms are still prevalent. Leader attrition. Pastoral burnout. Fighting. Mission abandonment. Distracting folds. Non-essential activity. Judgement. Fear. Self-righteousness. Division. Power play.
The cure for a broken heart is pretty elusive. The pain from a broken heart is incredibly hard to share, both to offer and to receive. The fix for a degenerating condition perpetuated by poor habits and years of folding is terribly uncomfortable to confront.
There is a liturgical element that might help us here. Confession may be the most powerful healing practice we have. (and the most under valued one) Confession is the act of unfolding, of exposing the heart holes, and facing our lies. In the openness between us and God, in the fullness of Christ's community, the healing begins.
If we Brethren have a hole in our heart, as I suspect we do, it's time to acknowledge the symptoms, press out the folds, and begin healing. What would happen if in place of new statements or stronger speeches or better insight sessions or substituting leaders or more lively worship we would enter a season of confession? Not just a few minutes, or even a few hours, but a season. Days. Months. Years even? Of course the Annual Conference program and agenda are already determined for this week, but what if.....???
Tonight I am praying for heart holes and their healing. For my own heart holes, both of them. For the heart holes of friends I know well. For your heart holes, even though I may not know you personally. For the Church of the Brethren's heart hole, as elusive and hidden as it may be.
My prayers resound with confession, that precious act of faith which declares that there is hope in the face of the unfolding. Hope is known by many names: Grace. Mercy. Forgiveness.
Mostly, though, we know it as Love, the kind of love that heals heart holes.