Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A New Heart

“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.” (Ezekiel 36:26)

This verse is recognized throughout the German-speaking world as the motto for the year 2017. The context of Ezekiel 36 shows the people of Israel in exile. They were being punished for defiling their land with bloodshed and idols (v. 17). If that wasn’t enough, they defiled God’s holy name “wherever they went among the nations” (v. 20). The people of Israel had fallen about as far as possible in God’s eyes.

Yet the desire of God’s heart was to restore them. To “gather [Israel] from all the nations and bring [Israel] back into [their] own land” (v. 24). He wanted to “resettle their towns,” and rebuild “the ruins” (v. 33), then turn the land into a “garden of Eden” (v. 35). Most of all, God wanted to turn their hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.

To get this new heart, however, the people of Israel had to “remember [their] evil ways and wicked deeds” (v. 31), all the while being “ashamed and disgraced for [their] conduct” (v. 32). In other words, to repent. God’s love and mercy are extended to those who recognize their wickedness and turn away from it.

In his meditation for Jan. 24, 2017, Richard Rohr writes that our own spiritual process, like the interplay between God and the people of Israel, is one of “loss and renewal.” It seems that before we can have a heart of stone turned into a heart of flesh, we need to experience some sort of existential loss. For some it is the loss of a job, the loss of health, the death of a loved one, a divorce or some other estranged relationship. For the people of Israel, it was not only the loss of their homeland, but also the loss of their favored status.

I have identified my own existential crisis as a loss of innocence through experiencing extreme poverty and oppression in Central America; much of which was perpetuated by my own government. I have written more extensively about this in other places (See: Chapter 1 of The Spacious Heart, Chapter 11 of A Living Alternative and Meditations on the Beatitudes.)

There seem to be two main ways that people deal with existential loss. Like the people of Israel, I turned my loss into bitterness and cynicism. My heart, like theirs, was a heart of stone in need of renewal. Christians too often, in trying to cope with their losses, turn to “moral mandates and doctrinal affirmations,” according to Rohr. They become rigid in their beliefs and “project [their] evil elsewhere;” usually onto people who have traits that they deny in themselves. Like the people of Israel and me, their hearts are hearts of stone, in need of renewal.

The other way to deal with loss is to go inward to rediscover the essence of our being, our soul, our God-likeness. Rohr calls this the “contemplative mind.” Through inner work, we can move from “mere belief systems or belonging systems to actual inner experience [of God].” Through contemplation, we discover a God who, according to Walter Brueggemann, is “merciful, gracious, faithful, forgiving, and steadfast in love.”

This God is affirmed over and over again in the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms. This eternal love of God is stamped into our souls, and became flesh in Jesus. As we experience this God through inner work, we can take on God’s traits, like Jesus, and move beyond ritualistic, doctrinaire and mostly rigid religion. We can turn our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. A new heart.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Unexpected excitement in Bern, Switzerland

My wife Esther and I decided to go by public transportation to attend a concert in Bern, the capital of Switzerland. By not driving, we hoped to avoid the hassle of traffic and parking, in spite of needing to ride two busses and two trains to get there, along with a bit of walking to our final destination. The difference in time was only about 15 minutes. Are we glad we did not drive!

As we walked toward the concert hall after our arrival by train in Bern, we discovered that the street we wanted to take was overrun by police and blocked by barricades. We took an adjoining street, even though it wasn’t the most direct route. Approaching the square near the national government building, we began to hear a loud roar which increased in volume as we drew nearer. Suddenly a fierce gale-like wind hit us, even though we were under an arcade. We could see people in the open square ahead of us hanging on to their hats, and others pointing their cameras skyward.

Source (Jürg Spori): Berner Zeitung Online
When we came out on to the open square, we saw a military helicopter overhead, hovering just above the tallest buildings. The noise and wind were overpowering. I had to hang on dearly to my ubiquitous beret if I wanted to continue my signature look. We continued on our way, beret intact, soon out of the reach of the turbulent noise and wind. We still had no idea what was going on.

After walking several more blocks, we turned a corner and saw the outline of the concert hall; our destination. The closer we got, the more worried we became. The barricades and the police presence continued right up to the front door of the concert hall. Would the disruption, for whatever reason, prevent the concert from happening?

We were early enough to linger along the barricades to hopefully figure out what was going on. A large group of Asian-looking people were lined up against the barricades, many waving flags. We assumed they were tourists—there are nearly always groups of Asian tourists to be seen touring Switzerland. We were a little too shy to ask other bystanders what was happening. Soon an escorted motorcade of very official-looking limousines drove past. Whoever, or whatever caused all the commotion was probably leaving at the very moment.

As the noise from two helicopters droned on in the distance, we saw that
there was a side door available for concert goers. People were streaming in to find their seats when we arrived. We entered, and soon the din from the streets was forgotten, and the reason for our being in Bern unfolded before our eyes. The sublimity of Mendelssohn’s Oratorio Elijah in the beautiful surroundings of the concert hall, dismissed from our minds whatever had taken place outside.  

When the concert was over, we headed to catch our train. A light snow was falling. The barricades were still up, and although fewer in number, security was still evident all along our walk back, but no more helicopters. As soon as got home, we turned on the news. Apparently the president of China was making an official state visit to Switzerland, and there were fairly massive protests, by Swiss standards, against China’s oppression of Tibet. The escorted motorcade we witnessed was probably the president of China, Xi Jinping, being shuttled from the capital building to where he was spending the night.

I wonder how long it would have taken for us to find parking, had we driven? Or how far from our destination would we have been allowed to park, considering the thigh security? Although expensive, I am forever grateful for the availability and efficiency of Swiss public transportation.

Now an interesting footnote to this story. When we boarded the first bus in Aarberg, there were two women at the front of the bus chatting merrily away. Nothing unusual. We noticed that the same two women boarded the train to Bern. As we neared the concert hall, we spotted the same two women lingering at the barricades to see what was happening. Sure enough, they entered the concert hall just before us to attend the same concert. Indeed, we saw them on the same trains home. Excitement, glorious music, coincidence, and just another day in our year-long adventure in Switzerland.

Source of picture and news: Berner Zeitung Online