A Covenant of the Heart

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                                          March 18, 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Abbess and mystic Hildegard of Bingen, from the 12th century, wrote, “You understand so little of what is around you because you do not use what is within you.” She is referring to the interior life of union with God. This is very difficult for many of us to understand. We know very little about the interior life. It requires significant attention through prayer and contemplation. It is particularly difficult to achieve in this society, which rewards an action-packed exterior life. However, there are a few in this congregation who have developed a strong interior, spiritual life, which is accompanied by wisdom.

Our reading from Jeremiah tells us that God has given us a new covenant through a law of love that God places in our hearts. Instead of always seeking guidance from external sources, we have the ability to listen deeply to the Spirit stirring within to find our heart’s path.

When we’re able to spend some time with our heart and our soul, we’re more resilient and less vulnerable to being buffeted around by external crises and world disasters. We give less head space to fear and worry, which allows more room for the breath of the Spirit. I love the Hebrew word for Spirit: Ruah. It means Spirit as well as breath and wind; you can hear its movement even as you voice “Ruah.”

It is always easier to access our interior life and the covenant of the heart when things are going well. But when stress and anxiety mount, it becomes more difficult. That’s when we say or do things that are guided more by fear than by love. I have a personal example of this. Two Sundays ago in my sermon, I made an off the cuff remark about not understanding Americans. This I regret and apologize to all of you. I was listening more to my fear of the gun culture than to the covenant of love.

Two weeks ago, I attended an interim ministry refresher where we filled out a conflict resolution inventory. This particular version helped you realize what modes of conflict resolution you prefer during times of calm and what modes you prefer during stormy weather. People often revert to a different mode of conflict resolution when they’re under stress. Ideally, one is able to switch between multiple modes according to what is needed in particular situations. But if you score highly in one particular mode, it is more difficult to switch to others. I find that the more I am able to access an interior life of inner wisdom, the more versatile I am in dealing with conflict as well as challenges.

I certainly had challenges last weekend, when I was helping to move my parents. I needed to move into the directive mode as I organized family packers and movers and began to sort and throw out so many things.  But I was frequently stopped by my heart, which began to grieve over little things. It was so difficult to throw out old jam that my Dad had made. And my heart helped me to feel the tremendous grief of my parents over their multiple losses of house, of control, of independence. I was most touched by the gentle caring of my brother as he attended to my parents.

These heart-stopping moments helped me switch from my directive modus operandi to a cooperative mode that required space and time to listen and work through particular decisions. It was difficult to know when to use which mode, as both were required, but I was grateful for the occasional space that allowed all of us to breathe Ruah into the frenzied pace of packing and moving.

As we move into the AGM today, we can be grateful for so many things in this congregation. We have a strong leadership team that generously gives time, energy and wisdom. We have generous congregants who have helped us reach a small surplus the last couple of years. We have exciting ministries happening—both new and continuing. We have a dedicated team of staff who work well together.

We also have many fears and worries of the future, of the building, of our aging congregation. As we consider these concerns, may we take the time that we do have to choose a cooperative mode of decision-making that will allow us to breathe Ruah into our midst. This will help us to respond not with reactive energy, but with inner wisdom that comes from the covenant God has placed in our hearts. Let us focus on the vision that God has given us and not get lost in the details. To quote the recently departed Stephen Hawking, “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.” Amen.