In the eighth grade my career intention was to be a forester. In the ninth grade I learned that forestry as a profession required a heavy math/science base and dropped the whole idea. After that when asked what I intended to do with my life, I usually answered with a shrug commensurate with the sincerity of the inquiry. Even if I had had a clue about my future direction, I learned that proclaiming it at one point in time was no guarantee of my doing it later. Certainly, "the best laid plans of mice and men" is one of the most useful adages of this or any age. What we intend to do isn't always what we end up doing. Change of mind, circumstance, locale, motivation can all legitimately play a part in thwarting an earlier aspiration. It is a common reality of the human condition that our intentions don't always reach fruition. Probably a good thing too.
It's not the same with God. When the Maker states an intention about something (in scripture, for instance) it WILL eventually happen. Somehow, some way, I believe, the Almighty's purposes get accomplished. Now divine intentions are not subject to our timetable or flawed rationale, so they may not happen when or how we think they should. But I am convinced they will happen. This is what makes Ezekiel 36:26 such a compelling passage for me.
"I will give you a new heart. I will remove your heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh."
Not an idle threat or pipe dream this. Nothing from the mouth of God ever is. Never mind that it was originally stated over 2500 years ago to a scattered and fragmented people exiled in Babylon. The metaphors of God are timeless and never bound by historic, ethnic or religious settings. Take it to heart, saints...then, now and always in time and space. This is the stated intention of God for His disciples: Your stone heart is to be replace by one of flesh! The implications are certainly liberating if not just a little intimidating.
First off, it should be clear that by "heart" Ezekiel probably means (and I for the sake of this article certainly mean) the center of our hope, will, personhood...the essence of who we are emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. The physical organ of the same name will be used here as a tangible picture to illustrate intangible or abstract concepts.
Secondly, there are those who might take issue with God's implied claim that our hearts are ALL stone needing a complete flesh transplant. Hard in some regions perhaps they'd say, but not the whole organ. Maybe just a quadruple by-pass! I'll not here defend the concept of our heart's TOTAL calcification but side step to an indisputable fact in the anatomical world. Flesh and bone tend to harden where pierced or broken, respectively. Now of this I am quite sure, there is not a human being having lived (even ever so briefly in the womb) who hasn't had their heart broken or wounded in some fashion. It is a universally indelible trademark of what theologians and parents of toddlers refer to as the FALL. So since we're all probably carrying petrified scar tissue inside, let's examine some characteristics of its make up. In other words, what are the more obvious properties of stone.
Well, for one thing it's hard, rigid, inflexible. That, of course, is a useful quality when dealing with baseball bats and snow shovels. Soft and pliable would make those items functionally worthless, to say nothing of comical. But in hearts (even the physical kind), it's bad news. As a twelve-year-old boy, I was awakened one morning to my parents' tearful announcement that Grandpa had died unexpectedly during the night. The cause, it was later revealed, hardening of the arteries. We've since come to learn that means a plaque-like crustation lining and ocluting the inside walls of the arteries, stiffening the "pipes" and reducing dramatically circulation. Blood flow needs give and take, open channels, flexibility. So do people as they relate to one another. Hearts too rigid to adjust and adapt with the inevitable flaws and foibles of humans eventually shut down like their physical counterparts. A stone heart is a sociological heart attack in waiting.
Along with being hard, stone or stone-like things are usually cold. Most rock is, after all, inorganic...i.e. dead. It has no "stove" or heat source in its basement to keep it warm from the inside out. Consequently, it is subject to the environmental temperature surrounding it. Just touch a plate, cup or glass in your home and you'll see it feels cool. This is because our bodies are much warmer than room temperature. We have a furnace that keeps us at 98.6 degrees F (unless down with the flu). But the dish's temperature is subject to where we keep the thermostat. (Our home is at 66 degrees F, that's a 32.6 degree differential). How tragically similar this is to that part of our heart turned to stone. Ever notice when dead-of-heart discouraged how sensible cynics seem? The rock outcropping of your heart becomes the temperature of that sardonic outlook. With no internal source of warmth and affection we will drop to the temperature of the world that surrounds us. A corpse is as warm as the room in which it lies in state.
Another characteristic of inorganic matter compared with organic is that it tends to be denser. Life needs room to move around. Death needs it no where near as much. It piles up, packs in, squishing out the available space life requires to function. In nature, dead begets dead, goes inward, clings to its own and gets dense. In an organism with an internal life force, death may occur but it's moved aside and pushed out by the regenerating of new life. Witness in our own bodies the steady turn over of skin, hair, toes and fingernails. Without that life force, however, there's just dead on dead. With death's density comes a most chilling complication. Departing with warmth and softness is the organism's capacity to feel. Death will have no intercourse with nerves and nerve-related impulses. To feel there must be room for roads of neurological commerce. But death fills up all available, functional space with itself. Those tragically afflicted with Hanson's disease (to the ancient world, leprosy) know this truth as few do. In that hellish disorder, nerves die first, leaving extremities defenseless, without the protection of pain. Fingers, hands, toes, feet, simply do not know when they are in peril. Death and its tissue cut off the supply lines of feeling.
How disastrous this "Novocain" affect is for the stone cold regions of the heart as well. Dead to emotional joy or pain, stone hearts exist in a "zombie" state of functional indifference, neither able to embrace the ache or enjoy the delight of our humanity. I am not passing a judgment here but merely making an observation. The reasons for rock quarry hearts are endless. Most of the them the results of circumstances both in- and outside our control. But however they got that way, such hearts are so inculcated in scar tissue that little can touch them of the pain of other persons or the ache their indifference can breed. The main characters in
Anna Karenina, and
Sophie's Choice come to mind when looking for well-known examples of this kind of tomb-heart existence. In both stories we follow the slow, sorrowful unraveling of women whose hearts had died but lives continued in a kind of cadavered twilight zone. Events and persons of real integrity come in and out of their circumstances bringing what appear to be moments of regeneration. But eventually it's clear that both are too dead on the inside to go on with the life they're presenting on the outside. These are extreme tales but terribly accurate in depicting the anesthesia of despair. The "numbness", of course, cuts both ways. Real pleasure and all its restorative qualities elude the sepulcher soul as well. For joy must find its own room in the heart to be health giving to the whole person. One only need witness the paradox of celebrities who in one moment speak of their life's delights and pleasures then turn around and intentionally or unwittingly take that life in some tragic back room of excess. Clearly the joy spoken of had no real home to take up residence and as it sat on the curb outside the abandoned heart, mutated into a self-mocking indictment. There must be a house of feeling, open and welcoming, in which our pain and promise can dwell, heal and grow. Without it our emotions are orphans. There is probably no more accurate collective term for the overall qualities of stone than that which can not feel. No one has ever bruised or tickled a rock.
Well if these are the characteristics of the heart God intends to ditch, what is the nature of His replacement?
For starters, flesh is soft, pliable...bendable. It gives and takes...conforms to reasonable intrusions on its shape. The operative word here, of course, is "reasonable". It will break or puncture if pushed too far or too violently. But on the main it's remarkably resilient. It has to be for an ever-changing fluid life courses just below its surface in astounding complexity and variety. In truth, flesh gives an extraordinarily contrasting picture to the world alive just millimeters beneath its exterior. Outside: smooth, still, dry, tough. Inside: layered, lumpy, active, wet, sensitive. Flesh is the Creator's version of a zip-lock bag only a hundred times more functional, durable and adaptable.
It's no surprise to find something containing such activity is also quite warm. Unlike stone, flesh has a furnace room deep inside. From this, steams heated liquid through the artery/vein "pipes" keeping all sectors of the "building" toasty (with the possible exception of certain female feet that consistently freeze up five minutes before bed time). As long as the building is well insulated (three good meals a day) and protected ( from long johns right out to scarves and mittens), the environmental climate will have little effect on it. Unlike stone, it will maintain its own interior temperature regardless of its surroundings. This, of course, is the key to flesh's survival. When its heat center dies, flesh goes the way of stone...hardening, chilling, compacting. As long as its internal heat source continues, regenerating life is the result.
This is certainly good news where Ezekiel's metaphor is concerned. In this escalating human ice age what could be more hope generating than a "heart of flesh" whose heat source is not conditioned or programmed by the exterior climate. Like a way station on the moon, God's intention is to populate this oftentimes barren asteroid with internally heated hearts (regenerated believers). Each "astronaut" has his own life-sustaining space suit, custom made for him or her (a personal and unique relationship and experience with God). Each is allowed to live and work in the "airless frigid atmosphere" of these times without being overwhelmed by them. (The mercy and marvel of expanding sanctification and grace.) At least that's the theory. At this point, however, the spaceman analogy dissolves. For unlike Neil Armstrong who bounded over the moon's landscape without, in his flesh, touching it, God's new transplanted hearts will feel the terrain of this broken world as never before. In fact, that is the greatest change the heart of flesh will bring to its owner. For flesh, when it is healthy and regenerating, is a marvel of subtle sensors. Hot, warm, clammy, cold...tickle, touch, itch, torment. Exposed flesh feels it all...acutely. Under every inch of its surface is a virtual sea of nerve-endings, all tweaked and activated to respond at the slightest stimulus. Dare we think God's metaphorical flesh be any different? No, every characteristic we can understand about our physical flesh is utterly appropriate for this spiritual transplant.
It might be helpful, therefore, at this point, to do a hands-on experiment in the physical for a clue as to what we can expect in the spiritual, psychological and emotional. Perhaps the closest demonstration of a rock-to-flesh transformation would be the sensation to the feet, of taking off our shoes and socks. (If your feet are anything like mine, do this alone or in the company of someone who loves you beyond reason!) Are you barefoot? Good. What's the first thing you sense, even before walking around? Probably how cool your feet feel. Remember our socks and shoes have been keeping the 98.6 degree F oven heat pumping even out to our extremities. But take off their protection and the room temperature is felt quickly and distinctly. This should be remembered by all saints who from time to time acutely sense the chill of the age. There is a great difference between your internal "temperature" fueled by the residing and invited love of God and the often death cold surroundings in which you exist. It is part of the consequential reality of God's intention, for you to feel the disparity between flesh warmth and stone chill.
Now walk around the house barefoot. What are some of the sensations? This, of course, depends on the type of floor or floor covering you have. Our place is mostly carpet. For me the initial sense was quite enjoyable. Carpet, after all, is soft and tends to cradle the feet. With my shoes on I could not experience this. With leather and cloth protecting flesh all surfaces feel pretty much the same, be they wood, tile, carpet, grass, gravel, etc. But barefoot, the subtleties of every surface become immediately apparent. Yep, cruising over the carpet felt just great until I stepped on a dried up bone shard our dog had been chewing. YEOW! I practically fell down shifting my weight to relieve the pain. The piece was so small I didn't even see it. But boy, did I feel it. I never would have known about it with my boots on. I had to be barefoot. Hmmm? Could there be things only a heart of flesh can feel? Things small but hard, hiding in the "piles" of our day to day that have gone unnoticed and unfelt as we walked the moments with our shoes on? Count on it.
This too is another consequential reality of God's intention for us. A heart of flesh will make you feel so much, you'll likely stumble where you once strolled.
It's like being at the beach, remember? You wore your sandals from the car to where you set up shop with blanket and umbrella. Then, barefoot, you headed for the water. The next thing that happened is what I call the "tenderfoot two step" . Closer to the water and often for a couple of yards into it there's a dramatic change in the surface of the sand. It's usually harder, more compact, and littered with broken shells, sticks, seaweed stuff, and stones. All of it so small and profuse as to make it impossible to side step. OOCH, OUCH, YOWIE you screamed, while hobbling to the waves. Hobbling, at least initially, is another endemic characteristic for the transplanted heart of flesh. The landscape of humans is too strewn with our broken dreams for it to be otherwise. No doubt about it, going barefoot on life's beach slows you down in some instances to baby steps. Forces you to be aware of what's right in front of you. Takes the strut out of your stride. Makes you more sensitized to WHERE YOU ARE as opposed to WHERE YOU'RE GOING. How often throughout the history of God's "shoe-covered" people has a great vision for the future trampled under foot countless broken souls in the present. How often has our zeal for a "righteous" goal up ahead, usurped and crushed our compassion for those around us in the boring, mundane, here and now.
It would seem, at least from a biblical perspective, God is as much concerned with us knowing where we are than where we are going. Witness what He says to Moses at the Burning Bush.
"Moses, Moses....take off your sandals for the place where you are standing is Holy ground."
(Exodus 3:4-6) Only after that statement did God begin to speak of His intentions. Could it be God's presence needs to be felt as much as seen, heard or talked to and thought about before it's really understood? Might God be saying here..."Don't short change your experience of Me, Moses, by putting leather between us...(in other words) FEEL, SAINTS! THAT'S WHY I REPLACED YOUR STONE HEART WITH ONE OF FLESH. SO THAT YOU MIGHT FEEL!"
Witness our Lord at the last dinner with his friends just before His execution. There was a melancholy in his heart few but John spotted. Clearly he knew His time had come. He said as much. Yet, was not part of that final grief His growing awareness that they still did not get it. They still did not understand what He had come into the world to demonstrate in the first place.
"Having loved His own, who were in the world, He now showed them the full extent of His love... So He got up from the meal, took off His outer clothing and wrapped a towel around His waist. After that He poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around Him."
LOOK, SAINTS. LEARN. THIS IS HOW YOUR GOD ATTENDS TO YOU. NAKED BEFORE YOUR NAKEDNESS. FLESH TO FLESH. DO YOU SEE THIS, SAINTS? GOD ADMINISTERING TO YOUR TIRED, SMELLY, SCUFFED UP, DUST-CAKED FEET WHILE YOU EAT, RELAX, AND HAVE YOUR EASE. DO YOU GET IT NOW, SAINTS? MY FOLLOWERS DON'T LOOK AHEAD TO HOW THEY'RE GONNA WIN. THEY LOOK DOWN TO WHO IS RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM AND SERVE WHOMEVER THEY FIND IN THE IMMEDIACY OF THAT MOMENT. AND THEY SERVE IN ALL THEIR HUMILIATING, CLUMSY, VULNERABLE, NAKED FLESH. NOT COVERED AND DETACHED BUT STRIPPED AND ATTACHED.
I believe God intends for us to walk through the landscape of humanity barefoot. This fallen, broken world is still holy ground to Him. And we, the prideful, ornery humans that walk on it, are still the holy objects of His affection.
But in truth, how often do I go barefoot? And when I am not, what are the "sandals" that keep me from being that way?
Well even the briefest inventory of my life reveals that I publicly and privately "hobble" very little because of "barefootedness". "I hobble enough in other ways without willfully initiating it," I might defensively suggest. But is that really true though? I see myself as vulnerable and sensitive.
A storyteller/songwriter depicting the smile and tear of human experience, is that more a decoy to keep the attention away from my carefully covered "feet"? Yep. No doubt about it. How much easier is it for me to write of the breakdown of intimate relationships (husbands/wives, parent/child) than to face and openly admit my often detached emotional persona with Greta or our children. There is no song I've ever written or will write that can love and care for them more than the honest, vulnerable exposure of my true self. Going "barefoot" tells them I trust our love enough for them to see me "hobble to the water." Because I'm their role model, they're free to "hobble" some too. Going "barefoot" tells them I want nothing between my flesh and our floor. Striding across the landscape of our joint worlds with boots strapped on tells them nothing of how I truly feel. Nor does it inform me of how they are feeling. Remember it takes exposed flesh to feel. What's more, as I strut in my covered up "feet", they might come to the erroneous conclusion that I am impervious to needs or pains...mine or theirs... I might appear so self-controlled and self-sufficient as to make them think their feelings are obsolete or antiquated. Souls need to know that they're needed and that they have an effect on each other.
Several years ago when our son was in the run-till-you-drop stage of pre-adolesence he knocked a cup of coffee on me at a potluck luncheon after church. The coffee had cooled to tepid by the time I wore it, but to my mortification most of it landed in my lap. To say that my irritation and displeasure were out of proportion to the intent and malice of the crime would be kind. I came down on the little joy-filled boy so hard, cold, and cruel that one would think he had just machine gunned half the parishioners in the fellowship hall. He knew he'd screwed up but couldn't quite figure out the reason for the severity of my reaction. It wasn't like this hadn't happened before. In his nine years on earth there had been lots of mishaps. He was a high energy kid. It kind of came with the territory. And in the past I had usually shown my controlled displeasure with a severe glance or chastening word. It had been enough to rechannel his errant undisciplined behavior. It would have been enough now, but this was different. Public embarrassment brought out another uglier side of Dad. I began an emotional lock out so brutal that its effect registered all over his trembling countenance. He sat next to me, motionless and wordless, (a massive accomplishment) under house arrest, till most of the coffee had dried. Finally, at my command, we left the building, he strategically placed in front of my still-stained waist and crotch. I said nothing on the ride home though his eyes pleaded for connection. The atmosphere in the car screamed for reconciliation, but I refused. He would suffer and pay for my humiliation the way only a father can mete out punishment...through silent, indifferent alienation. To my shame and remorse I did not give in all that Sunday long as he tried again and again to re-hook his caboose to my pride-crazed runaway train. By bed time the wound I had inflicted was heading for emotional scar tissue as he played with little guys in his "lights out" bedroom. In the morning he would have forgotten the immediate pain and packed away the long-term stuff for middle age visits to his "shrink". I on the other hand was finally FEELING the remorse my cruelty deserved. Against a prideful chorus of demons that told me to "sleep on it", I got up and went to his room. In the dark, for I was too ashamed to turn on the light, I confessed my sin and asked his forgiveness.
"Hey Reuben, remember when I yelled at you today 'cause you bumped the table and spilled my coffee?"
"Yeah Dad. I'm really sorry. I should have been looking where I..."
"No no no. I know all that, guy. Now it's my time to be sorry. Nothing you did deserved the way I treated you today. I was just so embarrassed 'cause the coffee spilled right on my crotch and made me look like a wet my pants!"
"Wow, Dad, I didn't even think about that...I'm sorry I...."
"No, Reuben. I'm the one who's sorry. I shouldn't have been so angry. Will you forgive me?"
"That happened to me once at lunch. I didn't go out for recess until it dried."
There's no doubt about it. You'll hobble going barefoot, but that's what a heart of flesh is there to do. To make you feel the holy land you walk. To feel the holiness of humans as you hobble through the clutter of their condition.
I think "barefoot" living might just be a mandate from God. Proof positive that there's been no organ rejection in the transplanting of stone to flesh. If it is a mandate, God can certainly claim to have "been there, done that" before requiring it of us. In theological terms its called the Incarnation. But that's next time.