We hear this turn of phrase on Jesus’ lips in our gospel lesson, the “hardness of heart.” In Jesus’ world, in Jesus’ spiritual formation, the heart would have represented far more than the amazing biological organ that we have beating within our chest cavity. The heart symbolized far more than this to Jesus. (It’s also true for us, here and now.)
In the Hebrew tradition, the heart is understood as the “inside” of a person. Apart from feelings, [i] the heart contains memories and ideas, plans and decisions. The psalmist speak of “the thoughts of the heart” – God’s own thoughts; our own thoughts. A “big heart” [ii] suggests extensive knowledge; and likewise, “give me your heart” can mean “give me your attention.” [iii] Jesus would have known the tradition, recorded in the scriptures, that humankind looks on outward appearances, but “God sees the heart.” [iv] And so, no surprise, to love God wholly and completely, you would seek God and serve God “with all your heart.” [v] On and on we could go tracing how the image of the heart grows and expands in the scriptures, so that “the eyes of our heart be enlightened,” as we read in the letter to the Ephesians. [vi] This is the essence of your person, your heart, what is written in your heart. And so, when we hear Jesus make reference to the dangers of “a hardened heart,” he’s talking about the symbolic equivalent of a cardiac infarction, a heart attack, and this is potentially deadly. I suspect that all of us are at risk for this – a “hardened heart” – at various times in our life because we’ve been eating a diet clogged with sorrow or stress, or because we haven’t exercised the heart in a way that’s balanced with an equal share of delight to offset the burdens. A hardened heart can come about, not just for bad reasons but for quite good reasons, as a seeming-protection or compensation for what is clearly too much. It doesn’t work very well in the long haul – hardening your heart to protect yourself – but on the short haul, it can seem a quick remedy, like eating fast food.
So what would cardiac rehabilitation look like, in a spiritual sense. What about this “new heart”* that Jesus talks about. Three things:
• Get rid of the toxins in your system. If you’ve been drinking bitterness or resentment, if you are lugging around unforgiveness for someone, this is not helping your program. If you are in a place where someone, maybe more than one, is throwing “not nice things” at you, you don’t have to eat it. You shouldn’t. If there are toxins in your system, cleanse your heart. And if you need help with this, ask for help. Most people need help when it comes to cardiac rehabilitation. [vii]
• Secondly, what would make your heart glad? I don’t think there’s any finer elixir for a dull heart or broken heart or overwhelmed heart than the practice of enjoyment. Life is many things, and one of those things, I would say, is the regular need, even daily, to practice enjoyment. What do you enjoy? Don’t hold out for this until you have a day off or a vacation or sabbatical or even retreat at a monastery. What do you enjoy? I would say that enjoyment needs to figure into your life, in some way, on a daily basis. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the great 18 th century German poet and philosopher, offered his own prescription for the heart to be well. He writes,
“A person should hear a little music,
read a little poetry,
and see a fine picture every day,
in order that worldly cares may not
obliterate the sense of the beautiful
which God has implanted in the human soul.” [viii]
• And thirdly, for your program of heart rehabilitation, to pray for the gift of courage. There is, these days, so much fear surrounding us, and it can be quite infectious to the heart. You might even find yourself fearful some days – fearful about something specific or fearful in the sense of “free-floating anxiety.” Courage is an elixir to fear. The English word, courage, comes from the Latin word for heart: cor : courage. [ix] Fear and courage make their home in the heart, but there’s not room for both.
Courage is a gift from God that, I believe, God readily and generously offers to us. Fear has a way of taking up a lot of space. By giving up our fear, by making fear our offering to God, by handing over our fear, we make space for the promised gift of courage. The gift of courage is God’s melding together conviction and compassion and the freedom of a person living on borrowed time. It’s not as if we can store up treasures here on this earth that will last forever… because where your treasure is, there your heart is, also. Life is very short. Don’t miss a moment of opportunity! Courage is the melding of conviction and compassion and the freedom of a person who knows she or he is living on borrowed time. Ask God for the gift of courage. Courage is a gift. It’s not a skill, but a gift. Ask God for the gift of courage. Take courage! Seize it! It’s there for the asking. And if you find you are in need of more courage as you press on ahead, ask God for more. And there is more… and it does help, something which you might find en-couraging to remember.
As Jesus said, and as he would say to you: “Take heart.”
Almighty and merciful God, in your goodness keep us, we pray, from all things that may hurt us, that we, being ready both in mind and body, may accomplish with free hearts those things which belong to your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
[i] See 2 Samuel 15:13; Psalm 21:3; Isaiah 65:14.
[ii] 1 Kings 5:9.
[iii] Proverbs 23:26.
[iv] 1 Samuel 16:7.
[v] Deuteronomy 4:29; 6:5.
[vi] Ephesians 3:14-21.
[vii] We pray in Psalm 51 the invitation to present to the Lord “a broken and contrite heart” and to beg the Lord to “create in them a clean heart.”
[viii] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832).
[ix] The English word ‘courage’ is more immediately derived from Old French, corage, meaning spirit, disposition, nature, borrowed from the Latin, cor: heart.
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