A Heart Refreshed

I am sure you have noticed this: We are living through an exhausting time. The relentless cycle of news, the rancorous political climate, concerns about our environment, worry about those who struggle, who are in need, who are sick and vulnerable—it’s overwhelming. With all this as the backdrop, we are still doing our best to live our daily lives—going to work, buying groceries, picking up kids and grandkids, going to doctor’s appointments, keeping the faith.

In times like these it is more important than ever to know how to find moments of rest and refreshment, to escape to a little island oasis—even if only in our minds, even if only for a few moments. We need some way to find our center again when we feel caught up in all the chaos. And we need to learn the signs that we are getting discouraged and worn out so we can stop, take a breath, and do something to take care of our hearts.

Many years ago—like 20 or more—I saw Charles Stanley, the now quite elderly senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Atlanta, give a message on spiritual self-care. He suggested that when we’re feeling upset and irritable and all seems wrong with the world, we need to ask ourselves whether we are feeling too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.

Those four things make up the word HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired), and he talked about how each of those feelings put us in a state that makes us feel more emotionally vulnerable than we might otherwise feel. The first step in feeling better, he suggested, is to meet the need at hand—get something to eat if we’re hungry. Spend time in prayer, write in our journal, take a bath, or punch a pillow to lighten our feelings of anger. If we’re lonely, we can call a friend, cuddle the cat, or maybe check in with friends on social media. And if we’re tired, we can put on our jammies and get some tea, put down our work for the day and maybe go to bed early. Each response is an act of self-care that will help us feel better, more centered, more ready to face the day tomorrow. It was good, practical advice for difficult days, and it has stuck with me all these years.

In our Old Testament scripture this morning, we heard from the prophet Ezekiel. He’s not one we hear from often, a servant of God who started out as a successful priest in the temple in Jerusalem and then became a prophet for the exiles when the Babylonians destroy the city and send the children of Israel running for their lives.

Richard Foster says in his commentary, “The people Ezekiel addressed were traumatized. They had witnessed the brutality of war and had lost loved ones to massacre. They exhibited the symptoms of war-torn refugees and were dazed and stupefied by the terror that had overcome their everyday lives.” He goes on to say that the book of Ezekiel—which is difficult for modern readers because of the violent stories—offered a unique kind of comfort to the people who were in exile at that time. The stories of war reflected their reality; they saw themselves and their experiences in Ezekiel’s words, his stories of destruction rang true. So when Ezekiel suddenly offers a message of hope—it is sudden and surprising and somehow, oddly believable. Isn’t it time for a rest, after all? Shouldn’t this terrible situation be turning around soon? Don’t we yearn now for peace? Into this time of war-weariness and despair, God makes an astounding promise:

“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statues and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

This amazing promise arrives after 36 chapters of stories of destruction and disappointment and failure by the children of Israel. Their lack of faith, their idolatry, their mocking and their distrust didn’t exactly qualify or prepare them for a promise of this magnitude. They didn’t deserve it, in other words. As Foster writes, “The ground of Israel’s hope is the byproduct of God’s desire to be holy, of God’s need to be God. Their homecoming (this beautiful promise) is an inexplicable gift, the result of God’s holiness.”

It’s about God and who God is, not what we do or don’t do to qualify for God’s blessing.

The goodness returns, the refreshment comes not because of our behavior but because of God’s good intention toward us—that we find peace and rest, that our hearts will be softened to receive God’s presence. Some writers here say that the children of Israel and Ezekiel did do something by recognizing their need for God and turning toward the possibility of change. This connects with the the Hebrew word for repent, which means return, as in turning back toward relationship with God.

What would it be like to be given a new heart by God, to find ourselves with a new and refreshed spirit—transformed in such a way that our faith flows through all we do, making our choices easy and our paths clear? Think of it: Completely free of all the struggle and worry we experience each day. Able to live with full confidence that God is with us every moment, loving us so purely that we know without any doubt that we never take a step alone.

For the last 10 days or so I’ve been reading an interesting book on prayer that was written back in 1957. It’s always fascinating to me how books just show up at the right time to help with messages I am writing or subjects I am studying. In this case, a few weeks ago, I picked up a very old book in our church library, and as I read through it, I noticed a reference to a doctor who had done research on prayer. Later I searched online and found the name of the book this doctor published about it in the 1950s. It’s called Prayer Can Change Your Life.

The research he and his partners did at the University of Redlands in 1951 was fascinating and the results were surprising. They designed it to be a true scientific and replicatable project, with control groups and quantifiable data as a result. So they did extensive interviewing and evaluating of 45 volunteer participants to understand their personalities, their defenses, and the issues they were facing in their lives. The participants were then assigned to one of three groups. In the first group, 15 participants went to weekly individual counseling sessions to help them learn about themselves and discover ways to deal with their issues more effectively.

In the second group, 15 people who in the interviews had expressed an interest in faith and a belief in the effectiveness of prayer were assigned to a group that agreed to pray every night for help with the issue they were facing. No instruction in prayer was given—these folks felt they already knew how to pray, and they simply agreed to pray for a good outcome in their own way for the nine months of the study.

The third group mixed the two techniques and was known as a Prayer Therapy group. These 15 people met as a group each week to explore their issues and talk about what they were learning, and they also agreed to pray about their issue each night for the duration of the study.

At the close of the study, the results were dramatic and surprising. Group I, which received individual counseling only, improved by 65%, which is quite a significant change. Group II, in which people of faith prayed for help with the issue for nine months, showed literally no improvement. And Group III, the Prayer Therapy group which met as a group for counseling and also prayed on their own, had the biggest positive result, with a 72% improvement overall. What’s more, researchers found that the Group I participants were ready to go back about their own lives with no desire for continuing connection, while every Group III participant expressed a desire to come back the following year and help others as they themselves as had been helped. Something significant had occurred here, as God brought healing not only into their minds but also into their hearts.

You may be wondering why the group that focused on prayer had the lowest result of all three groups, especially since we have such an active—and it seems, successful—prayer chain here in our meeting. The researchers believed that the people who were praying for help with their issue were, as they said, “praying amiss,” holding their problem firmly in their minds as they prayed and not letting their love and trust in God lead the way. Researchers suspected that the limitations of their prayers didn’t allow their understanding to grow, more light to shine in, a change to take root (and they spend quite a bit of time in the rest of the book showing how to change that.) Their hearts weren’t made new after their prayers—they simply prayed with the same limited ideas, over and over again.

In our New Testament reading this morning, Jesus makes it clear that the most important thing is that we let God’s love flow freely into every aspect of our lives. The Pharisees are playing their games again, trying to trick Jesus into saying something they can charge against him. They got the lawyer in the group to ask him which commandment is the greatest one. Jesus told them, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.”

This, Jesus says, is the seed—that of God–where it all begins—with each of our hearts, remade in love. Not fixating on what’s wrong with the world, not focusing narrowly on our individual problems, not throwing all we’ve got at solutions that seem far-fetched and unrealistic, but a simple, tender recognition that we need more of God in our lives and a humble invitation, a yearning, even, for a remade heart and an enlightened mind. This desire—to Love God with all we’ve got—is the seed of a peaceful, refreshed world order; a healed and hopeful people; a restored and civil society.

In the 1800s, Scottish minister Henry Drummond wrote,

“If man loved man…it would be preposterous to tell him not to kill. You could only insult him if you suggested that he should not steal…it would be superfluous to beg him not to bear false witness against his neighbor. If he loved him it would be the last thing he would do. And you would never dream of urging him not to covet what his neighbor had. He would rather they possessed it than himself. In this way, ‘Love is the fulfilling of the law.” It is the rule for fulfilling all rules, the new commandment for keeping all the old commandments, Christ’s one secret of the Christian life.”

To recognize the weariness of our hearts and realize they need the refreshment of God’s presence—that’s the first step. To care for ourselves in our immediate need—especially if we are too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired—that’s the second. But third, and most important, is to turn inward—return, repent inward—and let our yearning clear a tender space in our hearts where we can meet God in the honesty of our need. Oh God, help me find your peace is a prayer that is always answered. Dear Lord, I’m a mess today, God certainly understands. Lord, help me know you’re with me is a prayer I believe God answers instantly, every time.

The result will always be a refreshed heart, a brighter outlook, a revived hope, a sense of being tenderly companioned by God. And that realization—as true, lived knowledge–changes everything.

In closing, I’d like to share one of my favorite poems, written by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado in in the early 1900s. He lost his young wife to tuberculosis after only three years of marriage, and he never married again. He knows about the needs of the struggling heart. His poem is entitled, “Has My Heart Gone to Sleep?”

Has my heart gone to sleep?
Have the beehives of my dreams
Stopped working, the waterwheel
Of the mind run dry,
 Scoops turning empty,
Only shadow inside?

No, my heart is not asleep.
It is awake, wide awake.
Not asleep, not dreaming—
Its eyes are opened wide
Watching distant signals, listening
On the rim of vast silence.

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