May 11, 2014

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC


Ezekiel 36:25-28

Heart problems in women are not as common as heart problems in men.  I’m not sure why that is.  I don’t think anyone is absolutely sure.  It’s related to the fact that women typically outlive men.  I think I heard the statistic that for every single man who is 90, there are five single women that same age.  Pretty good odds from the man’s point of view.  Except by then it’s kind of late.

Here’s one theory about why women live longer than men.  Women are smarter. (On screen is a picture of a man on top of a ladder balanced precariously on top of another ladder.)

There was an advertising campaign recently to encourage people to get their hearts checked.  The campaign included testimonials like this one:

Hi, my name is Steve.  I’m 45-years-old.  I eat well.  I exercise five times a week.  I’ve never had a major medical problem.  But my wife urged me to go have my heart checked.  The test is painless and quick.  She said, “What have you got to lose?”  So I went, and am I glad I did!  They discovered I have three major blockages of my arteries and the doctors began treatment immediately.  You may think you have no medical problems like I did, but let me urge you.  Save your life.  Go get your heart checked.  Call and make your appointment today.

Now that’s as good a thing for women to have done, as well as men.  But probably more men than women would get test results back that indicate a problem.  Women typically have healthier hearts than men.

And I wonder if that’s true of our spiritual hearts as well.  The heart that is our soul.  I wonder if a woman’s heart is typically in better shape than a man’s heart when it comes to spiritual fitness.

This is Mother’s Day.  It’s a day to acknowledge how much we have received from our mothers and from the women in our lives and to say “thank you.”  Ask yourself a simple question.  Is the person who has had the greatest impact on your spiritual life a man or a woman?  My guess is the vast majority of us would say “a woman.”  I would.  And this despite the fact that the vast majority of us have grown up with male pastors.  There are exceptions of course, but most women just seem a little closer to God than most men.  Would you agree?  Most women have healthier spiritual hearts.  And today we say thank you to our mothers and to the women in our lives for what they’ve done to make our hearts healthier.  In Ezekiel’s words, to replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh.  To make us strong, self-reliant males a little more tender and soft-hearted.

We honor women and mothers today.  But let’s not get carried away.  Women need to get their hearts checked, too.  All of us need to go to our doctors for regular physical check-ups and all of us need regular spiritual check-ups as well.  The heart that is our soul is never so healthy that it cannot be healthier.  Even in the women we remember with such gratitude and look up to with such admiration on this Mother’s Day.

So today we all get a free heart check.  “The test is quick and painless,”  just like the one in the advertising campaign.   (As quick and painless as any sermon can be!)  We’re checking our spiritual vital signs today.  Here are five signs of a healthy heart:

1) A healthy heart is a heart that has the capacity to feel deep emotions.  The highs and the lows.  If we could put it on a graph it would look not unlike the EKG of a healthy heart.  There are peaks and there are valleys.  If your heart is working the way it is supposed to work, you will be able to feel anger.  And joy.  And gratitude.  And love.  And pain.  You will be in touch with your emotions, the pleasant ones and the not so pleasant ones, and you will be able to feel them intensely.

I had a great track and cross country coach in college.  One of the best.  His name was Chuck Bowles.  He built a very successful program at WillametteUniversity.  He’s the reason Nick Symmonds chose little Willamette over all the Division 1 schools that were after him.   Like all great coaches he expected a lot from us.  And like all great coaches he made us want to give him our best and more.   I’ll never forget the tears in that man’s eyes when we did really well.  He could get angry with us.  I saw that side, too.  But it was always predictable.  When we won or even when we didn’t win but we gave it a worthy effort, Coach Bowles would have a hard time getting through his post-meet speech.  He was in touch with his emotions.

Now of course when you get your heart checked, this is what you don’t want to see.  (On screen is a flat-lined EKG.)  Those ups and downs are a good thing.  It’s never a good sign to see a flat-line on that screen and it’s not a good sign, it’s a warning sign, when we feel numb to the highs and lows of life.

Sometimes we flat-line for our own protection.  It’s better to feel nothing than to feel great pain.  It’s kind of like an emotional anesthetic.  And it’s usually subconscious.  It’s a built-in defense mechanism to protect us from hurt we can’t handle.  Frequently people report after the death of a loved one that they “just feel numb”.  And that’s OK.  For awhile.  It’s OK to be under an anesthetic while you’re being cut on.  But it’s not OK to stay that way for long.  It’s a sign that something’s wrong.  A healthy heart is a heart that can feel all the many and varied feelings God has given us to feel.

2) A healthy heart is mindful of moments.  We don’t remember days.  We do remember moments.  And if we don’t have moments that we remember and that we cherish, that’s also a sign that something’s wrong.

Most of the regret in our lives can be traced to this.  Failure to seize the moment.  Failure to appreciate the wonder of everyday moments.  Failure to be fully present with those we love.  Over and over again I hear variations on this one refrain:  “My biggest regret is that I was so busy at work when my children were young that I didn’t give them enough of my time.”

Mothers, this is a good question to ponder.  Are you giving your children the gift of your attention?  It’s just as good a question for fathers to ponder.  Am I really there for my children?  And when I am there, am I there?  Or am I somewhere else emotionally?

Iris Krasnov has a book called Surrendering to Motherhood.  Here’s what she says about this gift of presence:

It’s about being where you are when you are and being there as much as possible.  It’s about crouching on the floor and getting delirious over the praying mantis you son just caught instead of checking your phone while he is yelling for your attention and you distractedly say over your shoulder, “Oh, honey, isn’t that a pretty bug.”  It’s about being attuned enough to notice when your kid’s eyes shine so you can make your eyes shine back.

Unhealthy hearts can’t make their eyes shine.  You can recognize someone with an unhealthy heart.  Their eyes don’t twinkle anymore.

There’s a word for this.  Skimming.  I remember “skimming” in school when the book report was due tomorrow and I had barely started the book.  When you skim you don’t take the time to read carefully and thoughtfully.  You’re in a hurry.  You just do the bare minimum and hope the teacher doesn’t notice.

Skimming is not recommended in school.  It’s even worse in our closest personal relationships.  And yet we often “skim” through life with those we love most.  We do just barely enough to skate by.  But not nearly enough to deepen and strengthen and enter fully into these relationships.  We’re too busy and too hurried and too distracted to be truly mindful of these once-in-a-lifetime moments.

A healthy heart doesn’t skim.  A healthy heart is mindful of moments.

3) A healthy heart has room for spontaneity and fun and laughter.  If the funniest thing you can think of to say is, “Are we having fun yet?” that is not a good sign.  A heart that is working right is a heart that is capable of finding humor even in the darkest and most desperate moments.  And that’s a good thing because that makes these moments less dark and less desperate.

I think of President Reagan when he was shot.  It was years before we were told the truth about how close he came to dying on that day.  He looked up at the operating room doctors who were trying to save his life and said, “Please tell me you are Republicans.”

I think of Alfred Haynes.  He was the United Airlines pilot who was flying from Denver to Chicago when he lost the hydraulic system that controls the airplane.  He crash landed at the Sioux City, Iowa airport.  111 people died, but 185 lived thanks to the skill and calm of Alfred Haynes.  Air-traffic control in Sioux City radioed:  “You’re clear to land on any runway.”  Alfred Haynes radioed back:  “You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?”

Those are example of people who could find humor in circumstances that were deadly serious.  But we get deadly serious with life when there’s no reason to.  We didn’t get shot and nearly die.  We’re not piloting a plane that’s about to crash.  If they found humor in their circumstances but we can’t in ours, it may be because our heart isn’t working right.  It may be that we need to get away from whatever it is that is weighing us down and go have some fun.

Helen helps me with this.  When we lived in Portland and still had all our children at home, she would make sure we would celebrate special occasions at a motel with a 24-hour pool.  All three of our children love the water and love to stay up late.

One moment stands out in our memory.  We had the pool all to ourselves.  Then Heather started it.  Heather is the one in our family who would usually start things.  She’s the instigator.  In this case, what she did was fill her mouth with water and blew that water at her older sister, Kelsey.  Kelsey of course had no choice but to retaliate.  Within moments we had a war.  Even Collin joined in.  He was pretty small by then but he was holding his own.  The children kept at this for a long time.  They were wondering why their parents hadn’t done anything yet.  So finally, as father, I figured it was up to me to do something.  So I filled my mouth with water and got Heather, moments before she got me back.  And last but not least Helen, the strict parent, became a full and active participant in our internecine water war!  All five of us were laughing so hard it hurt.  Then one of us pointed out the “pool rules” sign.  One of the rules said, “No spewing of water.”  That made us laugh even harder.  What we did was ridiculous.  It was silly.  It was juvenile.  It was against the rules.  And it was also good medicine for our hearts.

No one took a picture of us spewing water, so I thought I’d put up on the screen this picture that was taken of our crazy family when our kids were about that same age.  This was taken by a professional photographer after the serious pictures had been taken.  (On screen a picture of us making funny faces.)  It was Helen’s idea.

4) A healthy heart cares about others.  The mothers I know are pretty good at this.  Sometimes too good.  Sometimes everyone else has to be cared for first and Mother can neglect herself.

Many mothers are like Martha in the Bible.  Martha was the one who was always serving and giving and caring.  She had a sister named Mary who was content to let Martha do all the work while she spent time with Jesus.  And when Martha complained, whose side did Jesus take?  He said,  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things.  Just one is needed.  Mary has chosen the right thing, and it will not be taken from her” (Luke 10:38-42).

Mary chose to spend time with Jesus.  And Jesus is the model of healthy caring.  No one cared more about others than Jesus.  The door of Jesus’ heart was open.  But it wasn’t open all the time.  Jesus took time for himself.  He would get away from the demands of the crowds.  He would spend time alone with God.  So of course he approved when Mary did the same.

A healthy heart is a heart that is in touch with the heart of Jesus.  We should care for reasons beyond just a sense of duty.  Beyond maternal instinct.  Females and males care because Jesus has changed our hearts and given us hearts that care as Jesus cared.

5) A healthy heart is able to hear God’s promptings.  When our heart is working as it should, God doesn’t have to shout to get our attention.  God can whisper. And this will not be possible if we are in the habit of saying, “OK, God, I have 30 seconds. What do you want to tell me?” A heart has to be quiet and patient to hear God’s whisper.

Here’s what Frederick Buechner says:

There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak.  Even the walk from the house to the garage that you have walked ten thousand times before, even the moments when you cannot believe there is a God who speaks at all anywhere.  To live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music.

There is one thing I never want to get over as long as I live.  That God, Creator and Ruler of this universe wants to speak to me.  Sometimes just to comfort me, as a mother comforts a child.  Sometimes to convict me of something I have said or done that was wrong.  Sometimes to give me an idea.  That blows my mind.  An idea sent from the Creator and Ruler of the universe to me!   Sometimes God is just saying, “You are a treasure to me.  Do you know that?  Do you know that I’m crazy about you?”

God is speaking.  But if our hearts are not working right, we can’t hear God.  We’re so busy running around doing God’s work that we’re not allowing him to guide us and to show us what is truly important.

So how’s your heart?  How did you do on this heart check?  Are you able to feel the ups and the downs of life?  Are you mindful of moments and fully present with those you love?  Are you able to laugh and let down and have fun?  Do you have a heart that cares about other people?  Are you able to hear God when God has something to say to you?

Chances are you’re doing better in some areas than others.  Will you give some deliberate and prayerful attention this week to heart work where you need that “new heart” God promises to give us?  The value of going to the doctor to get your heart checked is not just knowing what is wrong.   It is taking that knowledge and doing something with it to make you heart healthier.  So too with our heart check this morning.

Henri Nouwen wrote this:

Our heart is the central and unifying organ of our personalities.   It is the place where God dwells.  And not only that.  It is the place where Satan directs his fiercest attacks.

Which is why God promises:

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.

We thank you on this day, O God, for our mothers, whose tender, loving hearts have given us so much.  We pray for all mothers and all fathers and all children and all families.  What a blessing your gift of family is and how far we’ve fallen short of realizing that blessing.  We pray today, God, for new hearts, healthy hearts, hearts that work the way you want them to work, hearts through which you can work.  May we love you and serve you with all our hearts.  In Jesus’ name,  Amen.