Struggles of the Heart  by Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd April 25, 2021

Struggles of the Heart                                                                      April 25, 2021

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd

I John 3:16-24

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

Matters of the heart are tricky. We can feel so strongly about something that we are able to justify it, no matter the cost or the truth. We are seeing that happen regularly as we justify exceptions to the MB restrictions. I find it so easy to judge others when they ignore the restrictions and then find all sorts of justifications if I consider ignoring them! Matters of the heart are emotionally-laden and difficult to negotiate.

Kardia (καρδία) is the Greek word in our New Testament for heart. It means more than emotions. It refers to the centre of our being that encompasses our will and our intellect, along with our feelings. Instead of separating our head from our heart (as pop-psychology often does when it asks us if we’re operating out of our head or our heart) the Greek word “καρδία” holds our head and heart together, understanding that our moral centre is an ever-flowing integration of knowledge, discernment, conscience, emotions and decisions. It is all connected in the biblical concept of heart.

Keeping this holistic understanding of heart in mind, I John 3 tells us that our hearts frequently condemn us and are in great need of reassurance. This is the flip side of self-justification. Yes, our we are adept at justifying what we really want. But at the same time, our consciences work overtime on self-doubt and guilt. We are afraid of doing or saying something wrong and we then withdraw. Guilt and self-doubt lead to paralysis.

That’s when our hearts need reassurance and courage to do what pleases God. And what pleases God? In a nutshell—love—an unconditional, no strings attached, agape type of love, no matter how small the offering. It begins with noticing. Valery Giscard d’Estaing served as the French president from 1974-81 and helped to form the European Union. In spite of his prestigious positions, he tried to be aware of those around him, no matter who they were, and give where he could. He played his accordion in working class neighbourhoods. One Christmas morning, he invited four passing garbage collectors to breakfast at the presidential palace. He tried to help others take notice of those whom most would overlook.

Agape love is able to set aside our own interests long enough to notice someone or something that needs our attention. My friend Sally Papso is well-known with the Wolseley community for being the first to dare to dig up the boulevard in front of her house and plant a garden. This scandalous act of defiance a few decades ago caught the attention of national newscasts and magazines. But for her, it was more than an expression of her love of flowers. There was a bus stop in front of her house and people would litter and leave cigarette butts as they waited for the bus. She was able to turn her annoyance into compassion and creativity. She not only planted a beautiful garden, but added a bench and a garbage can to make it as comfortable and as beautiful as she could for those who were largely living with less means. People would actually walk past their closest bus stop to wait at hers. Cyclists and walkers would go out of their way to receive the blessing of beauty. You may have seen her on the local news last week because the bus route has just changed and will no longer stop in front of her house. But her compassion and care for initially annoying strangers will be remembered. They will miss her and she will miss them. She will miss the bus stop itself, which she calls, “My old friend.” Agape love begins with noticing and moves to action.

Our scripture reading for today tells us to love not in word or speech but in truth and action. Love in truth means that we are able to see the needs and injustice that is all around us. Love in truth doesn’t justify immoral actions or injustice. Love in truth can sit in the fire and receive the hard stories. Love in truth accepts the reality that so many of our reserves still don’t have clean drinking water or adequate housing. Love in truth also remembers the generosity of some of these same reserves that are working hard to arrange and provide their surplus COVID vaccinations for non-Indigenous front-line workers.

But love doesn’t stop at truth—it compels us to act on the truth we’ve received. We need to continue advocating for the basic rights of clean drinking water and adequate housing for all First Nations. Last week, Marion McKay challenged us to accept the cost of caring for our environment. Likewise, are we willing to pay the cost of moving more quickly to bring clean water and adequate housing to First Nations? God’s love moves us to notice those who are in need and prods those of us who have much to be generous in giving to those who are in need. First Presbyterian Church in Dallas has an active community ministry called the Stew Pot—much like our West Broadway Community Ministry. Its sign reads, “Justice is love distributed.”

Needs, of course, are ever-present and never fully met. So how much unconditional love in action is God expecting us to give? I John tells us to the extent that Jesus gave his life for us. That’s pretty harsh. Most of us will never be laying down our lives for someone else. There are some careers that expect this, such as the Canadian Armed Forces, fire fighters, the police, and Doctors without Borders. Some good Samaritans step in to protect someone being attacked on the bus or in the street. There are stories of people willing to lay down their lives for a stranger in need. But these are the exception.

What does it mean for you and me to be willing to lay down our lives for one another? For me, I understand this question to be one of priority. Where do my priorities lie? Am I giving self-sacrificially, to the point where I can feel it pinch or just a little where I don’t even notice the difference? We might want to have a look at our calendars and bank statements. What do we spend most of our time on? What do we spend most of our money on? This is the time of year when many of us are receiving our tax assessments, and it may offer us a great opportunity to assess how we’re doing in the love in action department. What percentage of our income did we give in donations last year? What if we received a time distribution statement each year? What percentage of our time would it show that we gave as volunteers?

These are very hard questions for a very hard time. It’s hard to ask these when we have weak hearts that are paralyzed by guilt or that are working overtime on self-justification or that are simply working overtime. Thank God that it is not just up to us. God knows that there are many mornings when we wake to timidity and weariness. God knows when the toilet is overflowing, the phone and doorbell are ringing at the same time, yet one more bill is staring at us and the calendar shows another birthday that cannot be celebrated with loved ones. When we can barely manage our own lives, how are we to love others unconditionally and self-sacrificially?

God gives us a comforter—a warm comforter wrapped around our hearts. The Spirit is gentle and reassuring, filling us with peace and confidence, easing our guilt, forgiving our poor choices, and giving us courage and strength to set one foot on the floor, followed by the other. When we feel we have nothing left to give, the Spirit fills us with the assurance that we are loved by God. Once our hearts are reassured of God’s love, may we find the Spirit’s power and energy to look again beyond ourselves and be able to love in truth and action, no matter how small those steps may be.