Spiritual Cardiology


After I wrote my meditation on “A Wise Heart” earlier this week it very quickly became apparent that Psalm 90:12 isn’t finished with me. That verse says, “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart,” and the focus of my earlier post was on having a compassionate and caring heart. It occurred to me shortly after I posted that piece that the heart is also the seat of courage. While head knowledge is incomplete without heart knowledge, neither is adequate without courage.

The hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory” points that out when it says, “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days,” and the turbulent early weeks of 2017 certainly seem like the kinds of days the great preacher Harry Fosdick had in mind when he penned those words. In fact Fosdick wrote that hymn in 1930 just as the Great Depression was beginning and the Nazis were coming to power. I am praying the parallel ends there, but given the political instability and unrest here and around the world present days certainly qualify as those that require wise and brave hearts.

So if we really want wisdom and courage for facing trying hours and days, be they personal or corporate, maybe what we need for Lent is a heart transplant. A few years ago a good friend of mine was scheduled for open heart surgery. I had not been able to visit him in the hospital because I had a cold at the time and my germs were persona non grata. The night before the surgery my friend called me and we talked a few minutes. I don’t remember the content of the conversation, but he told me after the surgery that I was one of many calls he made that night. He understandably had trouble sleeping knowing surgeons were going to cut his chest open the next morning. He was nervous and felt a need to reach out and talk to people who were important in his life not knowing if it might be his last chance to do so.

It seems to me that the act of asking God to give me a new heart is also pretty risky business. My peers remind me often of the wisdom of Mae West who once said, “Aging is not for sissies.” Neither is following Jesus. We are in denial; at least I often am, when I tell myself that when Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me” he was just speaking metaphorically. Living faithfully as Jesus followers in a world gone crazy over materialism, militarism, fear-inspired violence, and self-centered hedonism is not for the faint of heart. To offer the prayer of Psalm 51 asking “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” is a radical prayer and should not be uttered by rote or taken lightly. It’s asking for a spiritual heart transplant.

I always enjoy March Madness of the basketball variety, but this year it is an especially welcome diversion from the madness going on in the world. As I was browsing at our public library this week I came upon a timely and enjoyable audio book about three legendary basketball coaches who all coached in the Atlantic Coast Conference in the 1980’s. The book is appropriately entitled “The Legends” by John Feinstein and is about Dean Smith (UNC), Jimmy Valvano (NC State), and Mike Krzyzewski (Duke). One story early in the book struck me as an excellent example of a brave heart. Dean Smith was one of the greatest coaches in the history of college hoops, but long before he was a legend with a basketball arena named after him, when he was a young, unknown assistant coach at the University of North Carolina in the late 1950’s he put his job and career on the line off the court. He and his pastor took an African American divinity student with them into a segregated restaurant where his basketball team ate frequently and quietly broke down one small racial barrier. When John Feinstein heard about that incident when he was writing his book decades later he asked Coach Smith why he had never heard that story. Feinstein said, “You must have been very proud of doing that.” But Coach Smith said, “You should never be proud of doing the right thing. Just do the right thing.”

Brave and humble hearts don’t need to boast about acting justly, they just do it. Actions speak louder than words about the kind of heart one has. One of my favorite more recent hymns describes how a spiritual heart transplant works. I can’t sing “Here I Am” by Dan Schutte without feeling my heart and faith grow stronger. In one verse Schutte has God say, “I will break their hearts of stone, give them hearts for love alone.” The courage to live boldly and take the narrow unpopular road that leads to salvation and justice comes from hearts filled with so much love that there is no room for fear and doubt.

The journey from fear to faith is often like the one Dorothy and her friends take in “The Wizard of Oz.” Those four pilgrims on the yellow brick road are looking for a heart, for courage, for a brain and a way to go home. Isn’t that a great metaphor for the human condition? Aren’t’ those the things we all long for to live a full and satisfying life?

Dorothy, the tin man, the scarecrow and the lion think they are on an external journey to the promised land of Oz to find themselves. What they discover is that the faith journey is first an internal journey. The Wizard can’t give them what they are seeking, but the pilgrimage they take to the Emerald City provides them a much more transformative trip inward where they all discover that they already have courage, heart, and wisdom; and Dorothy’s red shoes are her ticket back to Kansas.

So the good news is that we don’t need to undergo an actual heart transplant to find our brave voices. Our factory equipment hearts provided by God are full of wisdom, love and courage. But like our physical hearts our spiritual cardio-vascular system can also get clogged up by fear and weakened by lack of use. But no matter how weak or spiritually dead we think we are, no matter how long or how often we have failed to walk the walk of courageous and compassionate faith, Lent is another opportunity to take the inward journey to rediscover the depths of wisdom and courage God provides for the living of this day and every day.

To pray to God for a wise and brave heart is a first step on the journey, like when we realize we need to see a health care provider and live a more heart-healthy lifestyle. And even if we feel spiritually dead with a heart of stone, God is always ready and willing to do CPR or jolt us back to life with a defibrillator. God has an impressive record of bringing people back from both spiritual and physical death.

God nurtured Elijah back to health and courage on Mt. Horeb; gave Jesus the strength he needed to carry on in the Garden of Gethsemane; and turned that bunch of cowering fishermen hiding in the upper room into a band of leaders who turned the world upside down. God gave Ruth the courage to stay with Naomi; helped the Samaritan woman at the well bare her soul to Jesus, and blessed Mary Magdalene with a whole new demon-free life. Brave hearts pray “Not my will but thy will be done. Brave hearts beat to the rhythm of Isaiah’s response to God’s call in the year that King Uzziah died (Isaiah 6) or Mary’s brave response to God’s most incredible request to bear his son. The brave peasant girl said: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38).

And in Lent 2017 God still asks, “Whom shall I send?” and brave hearts sing (and mean it) the chorus to “Here I am Lord:”

“Here I am Lord! Is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.”

Do we mean it? Do I mean it? Our actions and lives will show the world what kind of hearts we have.

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A Wise Heart


While meditating on Psalm 90 again today my ears were tickled by verse 12: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Other translations say “that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” What does it mean to have a wise heart? Conditioned as our western minds are by Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” philosophy that locates the seat of knowledge in the head, the notion of a wise heart seems anatomically incorrect.

Perhaps even attempting to discuss such a concept from a rational-logical mindset is the height of foolishness, but so be it. The traditional Psalm (51) read on Ash Wednesday also speaks of the heart: “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” And later it says, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” That Psalm is often understood as King David’s plea for God’s mercy after his sins of adultery and murder are exposed to him by the prophet Nathan (II Samuel 12). While that connection helps us appreciate the depth of David’s need for repentance and forgiveness, the danger is that if we interpret that Psalm in too narrow a historical context we can deflect its relevance to our own hearts.

We have 20/20 when it comes to seeing the speck in David’s eye. If anyone needed to have a contrite heart it is he—a wealthy, powerful ruler who abuses his position to take whatever he wants without regard to the rights of others. But lent is a time to look in the mirror and see the logs in our own eyes. Where have I fallen short of the glory of God? Where have I failed to love my neighbors as myself? Where have I failed to treat the least of my sisters and brothers as I would treat Christ himself? (Matthew 25).

The biblical record is crystal clear about humility as a key virtue of a faithful person. Micah plainly says that what God requires of us is “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God” (6:8). Second Isaiah describes the Messiah as a suffering servant, and Jesus teaches by word and action that “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11-12). How many of us ever aspired to be someone’s servant when we grow up? Lent’s a great time to wrestle with those hard questions.

The wise heart is a humble heart, but what about that reference to a broken heart in Psalm 51? Anyone, and everyone has, known the pathos of a broken heart—a rejection or abandonment by the person one’s world revolves around. The death of beloved pet or a lifelong dream shattered. We all know of stories or have personal experience of a spouse literally dying of a broken heart when a life-long partner dies. I still remember the poignant opening lines of the 1970’s movie “Love Story”: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?” Why would a loving God wish that kind of pain on us?

We don’t have to blame suffering on God to appreciate its depth or its universality. Loss and suffering are built into the human condition because this life is fragile and temporary. Psalm 90:10 reminds us of that just before the line about a wise heart. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” And I don’t quote those to be a Debbie Downer, they are just honest words about life and death that wise hearts learn to accept and embrace.

A wise heart that has known sorrow and is willing to face it head on instead of dodging in denial and distraction is a heart that is compassionate. It is a heart that leaves the comfort of complacency and works for justice for those who are oppressed. It is a heart that loves the unlovable with a simple gesture that needs no words.
They say wisdom comes with age but I don’t believe that age is prerequisite for having a wise heart. The wise hearts of children who have not yet learned the stereotypes or prejudices of their elders are the kind of wise and humble hearts God gives us all, and sometimes little children are the best at teaching us how to be.

Two stories come to mind. A mother saw her young son sitting on the front porch with an elderly neighbor who had recently been widowed. Bobby was there for 30 minutes or so, and when he came back home his mother asked him what he and Mr. Brown had talked about. Bobby said, “Oh, we didn’t talk. I just sat there and helped him cry.”

The other is more philosophical and illustrates the beauty of deep knowledge that weds both heart and head. A pilgrim asked a wise old guru, “When is the moment when I can tell the darkness from the dawn? Is it when I can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog? “ “No,” said the wise one. “Then is it when I can tell the difference between a peach and a pomegranate?” The guru shook his head and after a silence said, “When you can look into the eyes of another human being and say ‘You are my sister; you are my brother’ that is the dawn. Until then there is only darkness.”

O God of grace and wisdom, help us to count these holy days of Lent that we may gain humble, wise and compassionate hearts. Forgive any pride, judgment, and arrogance you find within me, and may I open myself completely to you so you can “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Amen

“A Broken Jar,” Sermon on Mark 14:3-11

We’ve been talking about all kinds of brokenness during this Lenten season. Most of the brokenness has been about things that we cannot control – stuff that just happens to us or is going on out there in that scary world. When I started working on this sermon for some strange reason one of the broken things that first came to my mind was my aging body. I did hear a great line recently about aging. It said, “Don’t worry about getting older; you will still do stupid stuff, just more slowly.”

One thing I’m learning about aging is that it does no good to complain. I am much better off, and so is everyone else, if I embrace my brokenness and celebrate what still works instead of moaning what doesn’t.
And we all know something about broken relationships. I recently read a novel called “The Burgess Boys” by Elizabeth Strout, and near end of the book one of the title characters, Jim Burgess is depressed about a whole series of life events including separation from his wife, estrangement from his kids, and loss of his job. He’s hit bottom and says to his brother, Bob: “I don’t even have any family.”

Bob says, “Yes you do. You have a wife who hates you. You have kids who are furious with you, a brother and sister who make you insane, and a nephew who used to be a drip but apparently is not so much of a drip now. That’s called family.”

A prison ministry volunteer from our church told me about an inmate at the correctional facility where he does his ministry. This man has a tattoo over his eyebrow that says “Broken.” Maybe we all need one of those! We are all broken in one way or another because we are fallible human beings who live in a world created by other fallible human beings. That’s just the way it is, and no amount of regret, anger, complaining or wishing it weren’t so will change that. In the words of Ernest Hemingway, “We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in.”

Today we have heard Mark’s Gospel describe the story of a broken jar, a jar of very expensive ointment. 300 denarii were equal to a whole year’s wages for a worker– think a very large bottle of Chanel #5. This costly ointment was used by an unnamed woman to anoint the head of Jesus shortly before his final trip into Jerusalem. Unlike most brokenness in our lives which we try to avoid at all costs – this one is a voluntary act of a costly sacrifice. There is no crying over spilled ointment here because this jar was not dropped accidentally – the brokenness here was intentional and chosen for a very clear purpose.

We don’t know who this woman is. Like most of the women in Mark’s gospel who are followers of Jesus, her name is unknown. But as the text points out, her actions are remembered for posterity because she, unlike the men who hang out with Jesus all the time, recognizes who Jesus is and does the one thing she can do to honor his Messiahship. She anoints Jesus’ head – an act normally reserved for kings, and as they say, “no good deed goes unpunished.” She is immediately criticized for wasting such a valuable asset that could have been used in more practical ways, like being sold at the silent auction to feed the poor. A few drops of the ointment would have been plenty to anoint Jesus, but she chooses to be extravagant like our God who pours out grace and mercy on all people. So she gives Jesus everything’s she got.

Then comes what is for me the most curious part of this story. Jesus says, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”

Compassionate Jesus who normally is a chief advocate for the poor seems to be saying, “Forget the poor – you can take care of them anytime you want. This is about me for once.” The context is important here. Jesus knows what awaits him in Jerusalem while the Disciples are still in denial about his impending demise. So Jesus tells them yet again, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Like most of life, this situation is not an Either/Or but a Both/And. We know from the consistency of Jesus teaching and actions throughout his entire ministry that he is not saying we should not feed the poor. That’s a given. It’s depressing but true that we have the poor with us always – that’s part of our broken world that favors the haves over have nots. To suggest we can choose between honoring Jesus and caring for the least of our brothers and sisters is a false dichotomy. In fact, we can’t really do one without the other. Without the love of God to empower us in the face of all the brokenness around us, we burn out like a candle in the wind.

Have you ever felt powerless in the face of someone’s brokenness to know what to do or say? How often do we hesitate or fail to go the funeral home or visit someone recently divorced or suffering from some other brokenness because we feel awkward and don’t know what to do or say. How often do we fail to give to a charitable cause or ministry or volunteer to help because the problems of society and the world seem too overwhelming. It doesn’t mean we don’t care – in fact it feels like we care too much but feel inadequate to do anything that really matters. Because as unfair as it seems, some brokenness just cannot be fixed.

That should not come as news to us – most of us learned that lesson at a very early age from that great philosopher, Mother Goose:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

But we never learn from Mother Goose or Dr. Seuss what to do when we are in one of those hopelessly broken places. Fortunately we don’t need to learn that because we all come hardwired to respond to the pain of others.
A little boy came home from visiting his elderly neighbor who had recently buried his wife of many years. The lad’s mother was curious what the two of them had done, and so she asked, “Did you play catch with Mr. Benson?” No, said Bradley. Did you help him in his garden? No. Did you watch TV or play checkers? Brad shook his head. “Well, what did you do?” she finally asked in frustration. “Oh, we didn’t do anything. I just sat on the porch and helped him cry.”

We innately know how to care but often our compassion gene gets overridden by our own brokenness, and we need to remember again that childlike, natural way to just be there with and for someone.
The woman with the jar is in one of those situations in Bethany where there’s little she can do for Jesus. His fate is sealed. Jesus’ unconditional love and faithfulness to God will not be compromised even in the face of death on a cross.

The woman at Bethany can’t fix that problem. She is apparently a woman of some means or she would not have a jar of very expensive ointment. But no amount of earthly wealth can stop the wheels of hate and oppression that are about to consume Jesus’ earthly life. But that does not mean there is nothing she can do. She takes what she has available and acts on her recognition of who Jesus is. She honors him while he is living instead of waiting until the funeral.

I listened to a very helpful webinar recently about empathy and compassion that this story illustrates for me. Thupten Jinpa, a colleague of the Dali Lama was talking about the emotional part of our reaction to the brokenness of others. We identify with the pain and suffering of someone else, and we call that empathy. But as Jinpa pointed out, while empathy is necessary and important, we can’t get stuck there or we suffer from empathy burnout. We can feel all the empathy in the world for the kids at Avondale School without adequate heat, or the thousands of Syrian refugees, or the flood victims in Louisiana & Mississippi, or people living in Flint. We can have great empathy and all of us here do, but that empathy needs an outlet. Our emotions have to translate into an action step or they can weigh us down like we are carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders and in our hearts.
That is especially true in the 24/7 news cycle world we live in. We know about more brokenness in the world than any generation before us has ever known, and it wears us down. We can’t fix all the brokenness, and we have to pray for guidance to know where and how we can respond – with cookies for Kairos, or money for UMCOR, or just crying with someone who needs a friend. Some problems require action to right an injustice or build a handicap ramp or fix meals for the hungry folks at Manna café. Others just need our presence – either physically or spiritually to be with the broken hearted.

My dear mother-in-law is one of the most caring Christian people I know. She’s 98 years old and has been confined to a wheel chair for several years, but her awareness of what’s going on in the world is far better than younger people. We were talking about some big global problem one day or probably more than one, and she asked me, “What can someone like me do?” She is one of the most generous people I know when it comes to charitable giving, and she’s one amazing prayer warrior. She has empathy in spades, but she also puts that empathy into acts of compassion through her giving and prayer.

Compassion is the action step inspired by empathy, and we need both. The woman at Bethany had empathy for Jesus’ plight, but there wasn’t anything she could do to change the situation; so she did the only act of compassion she could think of. She moved from empathy to compassion.
By comparison Jesus’ band of disciples react by criticizing her or in the extreme case where empathy was absent Mark tells us, “ Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them.“

What’s the difference? Judas, in arrogant pride thought he knew better than Jesus what needed to be done. Many believe he was bitter and disappointed that Jesus was not the military liberator he expected the Messiah to be. In all fairness to Judas, we don’t know what brokenness he was dealing with that was crying out for compassion, but we do know the woman with the jar came in humility to honor the servant king.

It’s a funny thing about humility and brokenness. Back on Ash Wednesday we read from Psalm 51 which says, “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” Why would God want us broken-hearted and contrite? Because then God can work with us and mold us like the potter’s clay. But when we are full of ourselves and hiding behind a phony image of ourselves as all-knowing and successful, afraid to let our brokenness and vulnerability show, not even God can get through that wall to reach us with a healing touch.
But when we recognize and admit our own brokenness – when we confess our need for forgiveness, we are broken open to give and receive the compassion and love of God and others. That expensive ointment could do absolutely nothing for Jesus or anyone else sealed up safe and sound in its fancy container. But when the jar was broken open it anointed a Messiah and filled the house with the sweet aroma of loving compassion.
Each of us is a beautiful jar created in the image of God, and inside all of us is the precious ointment of compassion. Don’t hoard that priceless gift. In the name of Christ, break it open and pour God’s love freely on someone’s brokenness. Be extravagant because that precious ointment comes from an eternal source and it will never run out.

Preached March 13, 2016, Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio