The Tricksy Heart

Jeremiah 17.5-10

The phrase is rather depressing really, “The heart is deceitful above all things,” and seems more at home in an old style romance novel than modern life but, as usual, there’s more to the story if we dig.

First off, to the Hebrews, our feelings are in the kidneys/gut and not the heart; to them, the heart is where we think. This is why in the following verse where our translators have “I the LORD test the mind and search the heart” the actual Hebrew reads “I the LORD test the heart and search the kidneys/guts.” The translation is thus the meaning but not the literal words as originally written. We can spend some time arguing over which approach is better but the truth remains that when v.9 says “the heart is deceitful” (or as the NRSV translates it “devious”) what the Hebrew means is “our thoughts are deceitful.” And that is the first wrinkle to understand this text.

The next wrinkle is exactly what it means to be “deceitful.” The Hebrew word is Akov and carries a sense of ‘difficult, grabby,’ and in a moment of poetry, ‘walking on the heels of someone’ i.e. tripping them up. It is the root of the name of the grabbiest, jerkiest, little snot in Genesis; Ya’akov (Jacob). Yes, this word is related fundamentally to the obnoxious little twerp who came out of the womb grabbing his brother’s heel and then went on to steal his brother’s birthright and blessing; Mr. ‘Nothing is too underhanded for me’ himself.

So while we read the word as “deceitful” and our translators add in “it is perverse” to try and explain what they meant, it’s really grabby/tricksy/and perhaps best described as “untrustworthy.” (Note, “it is perverse” is not actually in the Hebrew, it’s a scribal addition that our translators kept in order to try and explain the first clause).

What then does it mean that our heart/thinking is untrustworthy? Consider a child in a shopping cart at the grocery. It’s bedazzled by all around it and grabs everything it can to stuff them into the cart. The child, to borrow a phrase, is “grabby above all else.” In the same way, our heart/thinking grabs everything and anything, it leaps onto this idea and devours that notion without considering the rabbit hole it may be going down.

To a large extent, social media and the advertising state exist to feed that grabbiness because it makes them money. We even find ourselves rewarded with little bursts of dopamine when we get likes, shares, and comments on our posts. So, like anyone who likes dopamine, we come back for more (and more, and more, and…).

This ‘see, want, take” approach is problematic enough when we face ideas and things, it gets even worse when we face people. We want love/closeness/respect and grab the other person expecting them to give us what we need/complete the hole in us and (surprise) end up damaging them and us into the bargain. In all seriousness, we see others as a means to our ends and the heartbreak and cruelty that comes of that is widespread and dramatic.

So, in spite of cultural imperatives to “follow your heart” and “all you need is love” we find this biblical reminder that our heart/mind is a grabby, untrustworthy mess. What do we do then?

A first step is to remember that our wanting and our reason need to be tempered with caution. But even that caution needs its own tempering because while our heat/mind is grabby and often less rational than helpful, it is not entirely given over to evil. In fact, if we live a life entirely distrusting our inner being, we’ll end up as some shallow caricature of health rather than actually healthy. Or, even worse, by denying our deepest self, we’ll end up entirely unaware of our emotions and why we’re screaming at our best beloved, or simply a negative image of our own ID anyway.

Self distrust is not the solution. Acceptance of our irrational grabbiness and a willingness to monitor ourselves because of that grabbiness is however, a good place to start. Another good step is suggested in v.10 where God points out in essence, that our own inability to ‘know our heart’ does not mean that we are hopeless, because God does know our deepest self.

This reality most emphatically DOES NOT mean that we are best when we turn our brain off and accept what ‘god’ tells us to do. If God had wanted mindless/heartless drones, we would never have had free will from the start. God’s existence and clear sight of who we are at our deepest means that we have a partner to help as we puzzle out the best way to go forward.

We have a friend who works to help us “test the spirits” that rise up in us to see whether they lead to life or not. We have someone outside ourselves who reminds us of (to use the theological terms) our sainthood and our sinner-ness. (In fact, one way to test any external helper is to see if they are willing to tell us when we’re great AND when we suck. Anyone who is only willing to tell us one side of that tale, is not our friend).

The heart/mind IS grabby above all else. Instead of blindly following it or blindly rejecting it then, our call to life is for us to test it. Our task is to see its tricksy nature, test it, argue with it, follow it, and live in it to the best of our ability. The blessing is that we are not alone in this work as both God and God’s messengers (the people around us) can help us in this testing, living, being work.

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This “New Year” Thing

Calendars are arbitrary patterns that help us organize days into weeks into months into years. They start at arbitrary times, have different names and shapes and even different raltionships to the time and the seasons.

Some calendars are lunar, with months beginning at each new moon, some are solar, with times connecting back to significant events in the round of the cosmos. Others ignore the natural world entirely but all of them are patterns to shape the way we live our lives.

So as the secular Gregorian calendar changes number into a new year, it is helpful to reconsider how many calendars shape our lives and think about how our story changes depending on the calendar we use.

Our Orthodox sisters and brothers (and astronomers) use the Julian calendar established by Julius Caesar. The secular American world uses the Julian calendar as corrected by Gregory XIII (aka the Gregorian calendar) to have leap years and thus keep the equinox and solstices occurring at the same time each year.

Our Jewish friends use a calendar based mostly on the cycle of the moon but with an extra month added every few years to keep the seasonal cycle lined up with the months. The Muslim calendar however eschews any such ‘intercalary‘ nonsense and thus wanders merrily through the seasons over the turning of the years.

Some calendars count years from the foundation of the world, others mark significant events. Ultimately, all of them are tools to put down a marker in life and say “here is a beginning and then that follows.”

Our calendars count out weeks from the first day of the week, but which day is ‘first’ is disputed. Some count from Friday, others use Saturday, Sunday, or even Monday. And then there are those of us who work on locally accepted “weekend” days. For us, the “weekend” begins on another day. Thus “time off” is not actually a common time for everyone but actually something specific to each person.

All of which is really a long winded way to look at what the ‘New Year’ really is. It’s a marker we put down and say “here, a beginning.” And thus the rush to New Resolutions (which we usually break).

A few years ago Carolyn Arends wrote a song to help us thing about all of this. She asserts that “every day is New Year’s Day” because every day is a New Day in which we can live and move. There are miracles every day if we open our eyes, and moments new as the breath we take.

Calendars are useful tools, and fun to explore. At the very least, they help us keep from having everything happen at once. But in the largest sense, they’re the big, patterned background in front of which we live and move and have our being. Today, this moment, this place, and these people are where we are and with whom we live.

Every day is New Year’s Day

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Advent IS Blue Christmas

One of the things churches have begun doing during the season of Advent is what is called a Blue Christmas. This is a worship service or time of remembrance where people who are in grief over loss may find in worship a sacred time of shelter from the aggressive, mandatory, happy-happy of the secular world.

In one sense, this is a good and kind thing, helping those in grief do their grieving in the face of a culture bent on making everyone “turn that frown upside down” or else “go to your room” until we can be happy and cheerful.

There’s nothing quite like the Most Wonderful Time of the Year to dig up old hurts and rub salt into the wounds of the last and the least. In some ways, it’s very much like Valentines (I mean “Singles Awareness”) Day. A time for those who have to delight in their having while the have-nots are reminded of their lack.

And the things we lack come in many guises. Given the advertisers focus on Getmas, our lack certainly be stuff. After all, “what did you get for Christmas?” is the essential post Christmas question for kids everywhere. What we lack can be a person, a beloved one who has decided to sever the relationship, or one who is dead. What we lack can even be more deeply emotional. My dad did not have a good growing up and so each Christmas he tried so hard for This Time to be the Perfect Christmas that would pay for all the awfulness of the past. It never did however, because what human effort could be perfect?

This then is the season for the Happy Haves to go shouting along, demanding that everyone start having Fun! Fun! Fun! just like them. The sad, scared, tired, and worn need not apply.

But a whole lot of us are in fact sad, tired, worn, and grieving and so the church creates a one off worship service, a chance to recognize the grief that flows just under our surfaces. This is a good and appropriate thing. It is also to, just a little bit, miss the point of Advent.

That’s because the season of Advent is not in fact the Pre-Christmas Rush, the official season where we run about madly getting ready for the day (or multi-day) extravaganza of family and fun. Advent is ITSELF our Blue Christmas. It is the season of opening up our grief, our fear, and our lack to the only One who can give us true healing.

If we want to follow the secular model of “being so busy” this season, valiantly tap dancing on the avalanche of social expectations surrounding us while maintaining our “cool,” there are hundreds of applauding and even adoring fans who will laud our work. In the subtle field of Busier Than Thou, we may well carry off the palm. There are fields upon fields where our glory can shine. But… none of that will prepare our hearts.

Advent begins in our heart, not our day planner, or our home; not even our social relationships. Advent begins where, with the grace and strength of God, we bring our whole torn heart’s field out into the light. We delight in the parts that are strong, we grieve the parts that are broken, and we take the whole mess and put it into hands far more loving than our own.

We bring our best, we bring our worst, we bring our whole MEH-lange of mediocracy into God’s grace and seek healing. Some of the healing will take discipline and practice. Some of the healing will come as a miracle of grace. Some healing will come from simply realizing that God has already fixed that while we weren’t looking.

To reach this healing however, we need to look at ourselves closely. We need a whole season of the year to review, bring out into the open, lift up, and receive grace. And so we have a blue season four weeks long where to prepare our hearts so there’s enough room for the baby to be borne in us.

The color of the season is even blue to get this notion through to us. It’s reflective blue, thoughtful blue, sad and even hopeful blue. This is because the whole of Advent IS blue, a reflective, quiet, cleansing time for us to grieve, let go, and be ready for the gift of life.

That’s a Blue Christmas worthy of us all.

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I Wanna Puppy!

Mark 10.35-45

Because we have a hard time with this stuff about leadership and servantship, I’m going to change the topic slightly and see if that helps. Yes, this is using the creative imagination. No, none of the words I am about to put into mouths actually came from there, but the mood of them? That’s totally there.

James and John came to Jesus and said “we wanna puppy!” To which Jesus replied “Puppies take a lot of time and effort. You have to feed them and walk them and take them to the vet and they will break things you love and make you cry.” But this did not deter the two young men who said “we’ll take care of the puppy and do everything we need to, we promise!” So Jesus replied “You will definitely get to clean up messes and have your heart broken, but this particular puppy is for someone else.”

When the other disciples heard about this, they complained “You’re giving THEM a puppy, we want puppies too!” So Jesus got them to circle up for a minute and said “Look people, you know how puppies look on TV and the way they look adoringly to their people for everything, and that kind of power looks really attractive. The thing is that if you really love another creature, if you open your life to a being in my kind of complete self-giving, you are going to be cleaning up messes you never made, catering to selfish beings who do not see what you need, and cleaning up pudding poo at 2am. Because that kind of thing is part of what it means to love a being who is different from you. That’s what it means to love the way I love the cosmos.”

And yes, that’s a whole lot of what it means to love the way Jesus loves. We’re awakened in the middle of the night by someone who needs to go outside. Perhaps the cats decide to go nuts and run around the house. Our favorite shoes or favorite couch will be chewed on or shredded because this being who lives with us. We will have to clean the litter box, and clean up… biological material, and feed creatures who seem only inclined in our favor BECAUSE we feed them. On top of all this, we will likely only have fragmentary thanks from this creature in spite of the care and attention we lavish on them.

On our own, this kind of self-giving love is hard and even impossible to do. We get hurt and mad and want to yell. (My mum recently broke a teacup that was precious to me, you’ve doubtless lost things that others broke of yours). We want to yell and rant and rave about how evil and awful this is. We get to the end of our emotional rope because “they won’t LISTEN!” (and do what we want). We’re frustrated, and hurt, and nobody else knows their lines (that we have so graciously written out for them) and the whole thing is a mess. Plus, we don’t get the thousands of adoring fans (or even one furry fan) that we were promised in the adverts!

The only way we can love and along the way give up our expectations of unconditional adoration is to find the source and power of Jesus alive in us. This is part of the point made right at the end of the reading “For the Son of Humans (tou anthropou) did not come to be deaconed to (diakonethenai) but to deacon (diakonesai) and to give up/give away his being (psuche) as manumission/ransom (lutron from the verb luo “to loose/unbind”) for many.”

In contrast to the political leaders of the time, Jesus gives his life (psuche) in order that this giving frees us from bondage to societal expectations, historical injury, and flat out slavery to ‘the way things are.’ And then there’s the outright slavery to sin, death, and the power of the devil. All of these slaveries are broken by the great Chain Breaking of Easter Morning. All of them are broken by the Way God Loves the Cosmos, with a living, breathing, be-ing, a person who loves, lives and gives personally ad directly.

To be entirely truthful, our own ability to love each other has been less than stellar. Our ability to live faithfully has been such that, were God anyone less than perfectly forgiving, we would have been tossed out on the trash heap long ago. Thus, even though we are most often the puppy messing on the floor and trashing the home we live in, Jesus still picks up the mess and still loves as a Lord who does not lord it over us.

So, the disciples “wanna puppy” and “prawmus” to take really good care of it, even when Jesus warns them of how ungratefully difficult it will be to love another being. In the same way, we too get our puppy, the person or people who are closest to us whose absolute ingratitude will drive us up the wall and across the ceiling. And then we get something else, the Jesus who loves without measure.

We get the strength to clean up again, to start over again, to wakeup to the sound of hairballs hacking, dog barf, and broken hearts and teacups. We get the real love of God which is bigger than our promise, more hope-filled than our hopes, and better than our dreams because it is real, alive, and wriggling in our hands. God hears our promises, knows that we’re going to fail them, and still gives us the strength and energy to love and keep loving through two am feedings, “I hate you” conversations, and the inevitable chewed shoe because “that’s what the promise is for.”

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Leaving and Cleaving

Genesis 2.18-24

I’ve written a bit elsewhere on the beginning of this passage and the way the creation account has been twisted by people who want to use it as a support for power differential in human lives. Now it’s time to handle the end of this passage and a bit beloved and misread by our more patriarchal friends.

You see, while it is true that God made Ha’Adam before Eve (The ‘Ha” is important because it means his name was “the Adam” rather than just “Adam” because his human-ness [Adam “human” is a pun on Adamah “humus/earth”] was more important than his maleness). It is also true that all the creatures of the world in the quest for a “helper to stand before” Ha’Adam (but again, more on that elsewhere).

The next part of the reading however is largely glossed over and even misapplied. You see, in our culture it is waved at the wife who is assured that she must leave her family and cleave to her husband. This is amazingly absurd however because in the text it is the MAN who “leaves father and mother.”

Even more, it is he who, after leaving his home, is to cleave/cling/be close to and in one case “be soldered to” to his spouse so that they become one flesh. The word of “one” in this passage is the same one used in the Shema “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” The Hebrew is thus really serious about this One-ness.

This “one flesh” business has given polemicists much grist and been cruelly misapplied more often than not, but fundamentally it means that the mutual submission described here involves a mutual exchange. As Paul put it, each person no longer belongs to theirself alone but to their spouse. Furthermore, no one hurts their own body but instead helps it. Thus each partner places their whole self in the care of the other and each partner cares for their new self as they did their old.

But what do they do when they’ve learned bad lessons about how to care for a self? That’s the leaving and cleaving bit.

You see, part of this biblical clinging to each other and becoming one flesh is dealing with what has been dumped on us in our past. Our parents taught us both well and poorly how to treat our being. They modeled rightly and wrongly what it means to be in a relationship with another. And now we have to leave that behind.

In order to be a good person in a relationship, we have to sort through all the learnings of our past, all the assurances that This is The Way We Do It and let it go. My family was full of almost casual levels of physical and verbal violence along with rank stupidity about what counts as “manliness” and “womanliness.”

In order to become a person worthy of relationship, I had to let go of the old stuff (i.e. “leave father and mother”) in order to be able to join my life (“cleave”) to another. Suddenly, the biblical text is less of an annoying side note and more of a deeply appropriate psychological encouragement. Add to this the reality that our hardened hearts are a real barrier to intimacy and suddenly this olde timey commentary is actually deeply important.

By no means am I going to say that the only reason relationships fail is because we haven’t left our past to become our future or because our own hearts are hardened against the other. It’s a good place to start because we are indeed the one common element in all our failed relationships, but we are not the sole cause of those failings.

Sometimes the person with whom we have begun a new life really is as crazy as we’ve concluded they are. Sometimes they are the ones unwilling to leave the certainties of their home life in order to cling to us. Sometimes the person we thought we met really didn’t exist except in our dreams. If we are going to grow and become however, it’s always a good idea to start out asking “what do I need to leave in my past in order to cleave to a new life with this person?”

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Punching Satan in the Face

Revelation 12.7-12

The Feast of Michael and All Angels (29 September), also called Michaelmas, is a day largely uncelebrated in the protestant west and that’s just sad. In England it’s associated with the turning of the seasons from summer labor to harvest rewards. It’s used to describe the fall term in schooling which is a beginning of the new academic year. As we have moved away from closeness to the seasons of the earth and look further and further into our past to talk about school, both of those movements seem quaint and olde-timey.

And yet, the Archangel Michael is known to our Eastern Orthodox friends as Michael the Taxiarch, (Greek for Brigadier). He’s the field commander of the heavenly hosts, the Angel Army we talk about when we describe God as Lord of Hosts. We see him in Daniel helping a messenger (angel) fight past the ‘Prince of Persia’ (a spiritual force opposed to God). But it is in the Revelation to St. John where he really comes to his battling peak.

[Important note: the Book of the Revelation to St. John is a mysterious vision about the God who is Mystery, so if anyone wants to sell you a secret decoder ring and says you have to pay more than two boxtops for it, it’s a scam. The point of the vision is that God Wins In The End not exactly who The Antichrist Is [particularly because the word antichristos “anti-Christ” doesn’t even show up in the book]. I’ve talked more about this elsewhere.]

But getting back to the battle. In the twelfth chapter of the Revelation, we see a war in heaven. In that war Michael and the Angel Armies war against The Satan and his demons. In the text, “the giant dragon, the original serpent, the one called devil and The Satan, the liar (deceiver) of the whole community” (Personal translation) is thrown down. While the text translates this as a “throwing down,” it has the sense of “pitching out/chucking out like old garbage.” I take it to mean that there’s going to be a certain amount of fighting and punching going on while Mike “takes out the trash.” That’s why I like to call Michael “Mr. Punches-Satan-in-the-Face.”

He’s head of the armies, he fights to bring messages to the beleaguered believers (Daniel f’rinstance), and when the Big Fight goes down, he’s chief Puncher of Satan. What’s not to like about Mike?

If that were all Michael were about, it would be enough for us to get out the pom-poms and cheer. But there are two subtle other things in this text that talk about our part in this fight.

The first is simply to note that there are no people involved in this war in heaven. Angels are fighting demons, Michael and the Giant Dragon are duking it out, and there’s not one single human being anywhere on the field. This is an important reminder to us that we are not in fact Holy Warriors against Other People. Some of the most evil barbarities of Church history have come up because Christians got confused about who the enemy truly is. We looked at human beings and saw demon infested monsters to be slaughtered without mercy.

(Sidenote: has anyone else noticed the way American political language is full of the language of Holy War. Whether the “enemy” is a libtard or a Trumpkin, a Fascist or a Commie; they’re Not Really Human. “They” are monsters to be utterly destroyed instead of human beings with value. This is a vile misuse of our spiritual language).

But there are actually no humans involved in the war. It’s an angelic war not a human one and we need to be unconfused about who the Enemy is. Interestingly, the enemy is actually right there in the text. But to know that, we have to pick up the second point in the text and learn a little Hebrew.

Satan is a job title, not a name. In Hebrew it is written Ha’Satan “the Satan.” Greek and English simply imported the word without also bringing over its meaning. The root word is “accuse” thus “Ha’Satan” is most literally “the accuser.” So Satan is actually the accuser, the one who katergo (“leads others against”) us. This is the voice that says ‘you are not worthy, not capable,’ ‘you’re stupid, dumb, and bad.’ This voice lingers in our heads and undermines our attempts to do, be, and become more than the lies we were told. (And who is the Father of Lies?).

The war in our life is not with people, it is with the voice of lies that echo in our hearts. It is with the Accusations we swallowed down and believed Back In The Day and The Accuser (The Satan) who keeps throwing those accusations at us to this very day.

Does this mean that we are hopelessly outclassed? The Satan is a spiritual enemy after all, our ancient enemy from Back in the Garden. How are we supposed to punch that liar and his damnable lies in the face?

The history of the church shows that there are indeed some believers who have through years of spiritual practice and strength gotten the demons and even the devil to flee. The rest of us are sometimes successful, sometimes stuck, and often outclassed.

If only there were a Designated Satan Puncher somewhere among the Heavenly Host.

(Oh wait, there is)

And that’s why Michaelmas, the Feast of Michael and All Angels, is important to us. Our spiritual life is not just Me and my partial understanding of who Jesus is, it’s not Me and my confusion, it’s Me and the Heavenly Hosts led by the Archangel Michael under the command of Almighty God. And Mike is the designated Satan’s-Face-Puncher.

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