Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd Sept. 2, 2018
Mark 7:1-8, 14-16, 21-23; James 1:19-27
If we want our cars to last, we know that we need to look after them. Regular servicing, fluid changes and wheel alignments all extend the life the car. (You’ll notice from our announcements that we have both good news and bad news. First the good news: soon you won’t have to have a wheel alignment every time you drive down Lanark. The bad news is that there will be no parking there for 9 weeks). Most of us pay attention to our car needs because we know that regular maintenance saves a lot of money in the long haul. But how many of us have regular check-ups for our own physical, mental and spiritual health? If we were to take a confidential survey, my guess is that it would show that we’re better at looking after our cars than ourselves.
Summer is a natural time for indulgences. Hopefully we sleep more and come into the fall rested. But I know that I eat more as well—there are so many tasty summer treats. And so, fall for me is a time of body alignment—to return to my healthy eating patterns and exercise routine.
But there’s more to us than just our body. Our passages from both Mark and James talk about the need for heart alignments. Jesus mentions the word “heart” three times in Mark 7:1-23. He tells his listeners that they are just going through the actions of doing the right things. Their hearts are not in it.
When we go through the actions with a dulled or hardened heart, our actions become empty rituals and it becomes difficult to distinguish between what is of God and what is not. It is easier to follow the laws of the land and our daily habits than to discern regularly how our words and actions affect others.
The more our hearts are aligned with God’s will, the easier it is to discern our words and actions. Søren Kierkegaard, a theologian from 19th century, wrote, “purity of heart is to will one thing.” And what is that one thing? The Good. Kierkegaard explains that willing the Good in others and in ourselves is to will as God wills.
When our hearts are out of alignment, we’re more likely to slip into hypocrisy, which is a disconnect between our moral values and our practice. We all do this. Not one of us retains a purity of heart at all times. It’s impossible, because none of us is perfect. No matter how good a driver we are, the bumps in the road necessitate wheel alignments—especially in Winnipeg. Likewise, no matter how much we try to do the right thing, our lives hit bumps that necessitate heart alignments.
Proverbs 4:23 tells us to “watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.”
What do we mean by the heart? In our scripture the word “heart” means much more than our contemporary limitation of heart to the seat of emotions. In the Jewish world of Jesus, the heart meant the seat of the will and of the intellect, as well as the emotions. One’s heart meant the core of one’s being, one’s true identity, one’s innermost self.
When our emotions are in line with our will (which leads to actions) and our intellect (which leads to decisions), we will have the courage to be true to our hearts. The word “courage” comes from the French “coeur” which means heart.
When we talk about someone being softhearted, we usually mean someone who bends easily to the emotions and will of someone else. They will have boundless compassion BUT that presents a problem because compassion without boundaries is not compassion, nor is it respectful. Brené Brown writes, “The heart of compassion is really acceptance. The better we are at accepting ourselves and others, the more compassionate we become…It’s difficult to accept people when they are hurting us or taking advantage of us or walking all over us…If we really want to practice compassion, we have to start by setting boundaries…holding people accountable for their behaviour…and following through with appropriate consequences.” That is respectful, compassionate acceptance.
This type of compassion honours the holistic, Hebrew understanding of the heart that holds emotions, will and intellect together.
I have found three things that help me in my heart alignment. One of them is to find a spiritual buddy who is available for regular check-ups and whom we trust. When getting together, we can ask each other, “How is your heart doing?” My partner and a friend always make a point of asking each other “How is your spirit doing?” This question introduces one more element into the picture. It honours our connection with Holy Mystery and helps us move towards open-heartedness to Divine Love, as expressed in others and in ourselves.
Prayer the second thing helps me to align my heart. Our natural instincts of prayer position take us unconsciously into this heart space. When children are taught how to pray, they are often shown how to place their hands together, with their thumbs touching their sternum and their heads bowed. It is the same position that Hindus teach. If you have ever taken a Yoga class, you are taught this position, with head bowed to the heart, speaking the word “Namaste” which means “I bow to the divine in you.”
A third way that I have found essential to heart alignment is space and time. The heart needs more time than the head to process things, because the heart is trying to integrate our thoughts, our emotions, our desires and our actions. You cannot hurry the heart.
This is one of the reasons that I write my sermon at home on Mondays. I look forward to unhurried space and time to reflect. If I were pressed for time, it would be more difficult for my heart to be in it.
How do you keep your heart in your actions and in your words? How do you remain openhearted to yourself, to others and to the Divine, Holy Mystery that is all around and within us if we only have eyes to see? Antoine de Saint Exupéry in The Little Prince writes “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
 Loye Bradley Ashton, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009): 24.