Religion of the Heart

Ken Sehested
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Circle of Mercy, 2 April 2006

        Friday’s Asheville Citizen-Times featured front-page story was about the first day of our new lottery. The story, titled “Let the Dreams Begin,” was dominated by a photo of the woman who won the area’s first prize. She shelled out $20 at the Hot Spot convenience store and gas station south of where Nancy and I live on Brevard Road. The fact that she only won $3 didn’t seem to dampen her enthusiasm. “This is the only way I’m ever going to be a millionaire,” she said. “I can work all my life, and it isn’t going to happen.” [Hold up paper with headline: “Let the Dreams Begin”]

        Meanwhile, the state of North Carolina raked in $10 million on the first day. Last year the voters were promised the money would supplement spending on education, that it would be added to the profits from thousands of bake sales and raffles and school-sponsored carnivals—and, of course, property taxes that support public education. It wasn’t until all the lottery machinery was in place that the governor announced: Oh, by the way, a full 35% of the profits would go to education. And . . . well . . . the richest school districts would be getting more than their proportionate amount because . . . well . . . those poor owners of expensive homes pay an awful lot of taxes.

        To my knowledge, no one is asking why public education is being held hostage to the lottery. Why not ask the Department of Transportation to rely on bake sales and lottery proceeds to cover the cost of widening I-240? Better yet, why not tie Ft. Bragg and Camp Lejeune’s budgets to lottery proceeds? Or the fund that subsidizes tax breaks for corporate relocation offers?

        It’s funny what goes through the mind when you’re doing pick and shovel work, which I’ve been doing a lot recently. I started a new job, digging a French drain and installing natural stone stairsteps up the slope in Mary Anne and Chris’s back yard. Then came the tricky part: trying to wrestle a rototiller up and down that steep slope to bust up the hardened clay and get it ready for planting a ground cover. After tipping over for the third time, and slicing my thumb, I finally decided it was more dangerous than daring. So I’ve gone to the old-fashioned method, back to the shovel: Spade touching earth, driven deep by force of the boot, driving the blade past the inch or so of fertile ground down through another 3-4 inches of clay and the occasional tree root. When the incision is sufficiently deep, bear down on the shovel handle to separate the sod from the slope; then lay it down, moving to the side another six inches and repeat the process, readying that compacted earth to receive fertilizer and seeds, so that those scrubby weeds and sparse grass will give way to more robust vegetation.

        By my rough calculation, there’s 880 square feet of slope to be tilled, which will require about 2,400 shovels-full of dirt. It’s a big job. How do you keep the mind occupied through such a task? For inspiration, I remember that one of our new folk, John Templeton, walked the entire Appalachian Trail, more than 2,100 miles and an estimated 5 million steps, between Springer Mountain in North Georgia to Katahdin in Maine. John describes the experience as a walking meditation. So I’ll think of this work as a shoveling meditation. And I’ll ponder our state’s new lottery, and what it is that makes people imagine becoming millionaires with the scratch of a coin, where the odds of winning are two-and-a-half million to one.

        Blade touching earth, driven deep by force of boot; then lift, move over 6 inches, and repeat.

        While I’m doing my tilling I’ll ponder other mysterious phenomenon. Like the doctrine of “full-spectrum dominance.” Have you heard that phrase? It was outlined in the Department of Defense’s blueprint for future military operations, issued in May 2000 under the title “Joint Vision 2020.”

        “The ultimate goal of our military force . . . will be achieved through full spectrum dominance—the ability of U.S. forces, operating unilaterally or in combination with multinational and interagency partners, to defeat any adversary and control any situation. . . . Given the global nature of our interests and obligations, the U.S. must maintain its overseas presence forces and the ability to rapidly project power worldwide in order to achieve full spectrum dominance.” (By the way, in case you lost count, the U.S. currently maintains 712 military bases outside our own borders. And our military spending now exceeds the combined military budgets of every nation on earth.)

        Blade touching earth, driven deep by force of boot; then lift, move over 6 inches, and repeat.

        Among my shoveling meditations is the statement made by George Kennan, one of our most respected foreign ambassadors of the 20th century who is credited with articulating the U.S. theory of “containment” of the Soviet Union. In 1948 he wrote this assessment:

        “We have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population.  This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia.  In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment.  Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.  To do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. . . . We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”

        Blade touching earth, driven deep by force of boot; then lift, move over 6 inches, and repeat.

        The Kennan doctrine, and the “full-spectrum dominance” theory, is what led in September 2002 for the Bush Administration’s “National Security Strategy.” That document, just recently updated, provides for the first time in our nation’s history a justification for preemptive war. In other words, no longer does just war theory apply on when it is legally defensible to go to war. We now have in place, as national policy, the authorization to go to war at any time, against any nation, for reasons not open to discussion or debate.

        Blade touching earth, driven deep by force of boot; then lift, move over 6 inches, and repeat.

        Which reminds me of the comment made during a 2003 news conference, when an aide to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld responded to a reporters’ question about the sagging morale of U.S. troops in Iraq: "This is the future for the world we're in at the moment. We'll get better as we do it more often."

        Blade touching earth, driven deep by force of boot; then lift, move over 6 inches, and repeat.

        In my shovel-tilling meditation I’ll also be pondering texts like the one we focus on today, where Jeremiah relays the Divine promise that one day the law of love and life will not involve obedience to some exterior command but will in fact be inscribed on the heart of every individual.

        My whole life has been one long pondering of the space between text and context: looking to see what is happening in the world, then looking to see what is written in Scripture; and asking, What does one have to do with the other?

        Blade touching earth, driven deep by force of boot; then lift, move over 6 inches, and repeat.

        As a young adult, however, I began to sense that the text had little meaning in face of the context. What does the heart have to do with the array of power relations in the world? What does giving your heart to Jesus have to do with realities of war, of continuing racial disparity and economic injustice? Back when the airlines still had them, I used to intentionally book a seat back there in the smoking section, thinking there would be less chance that I would sit down next to someone who might ask me if I had been born again, if I had given my heart to Jesus!

        Why do we, right here in this Circle, spend so much time with this ancient, outdated, often hard-to-understand text? Who do we continue to gather around this Book when we could be out there cleaning up polluted rivers and tutoring disadvantaged children and  caring for homeless people; and resisting the School of the Americas or spending a lot of money making friends in Cuba or sending cards to people in prison?

        Why all this talk about spiritual formation, about “getting saved,” when the world is falling apart? Shouldn’t we dispense with all this sentimental talk about the heart and focus on straight power concepts?

        One of my favorite lines from contemporary music comes from the Greg Brown song sung by Dar Williams, Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky: “Oh Lord, I’ve made you a place in my heart, and I hope now you leave it alone.” In most of what passes for spirituality in our time—whether it’s the old-fashioned type of piety or the newer-age variety—there is a radical disconnect between religion of the heart and life in the flesh. A lot of people—when they talk about “giving your heart to Jesus” —what they mean is having a religious experience tinged with certain kinds of emotion. Is that true? Let’s examine some key biblical images.

      The Bible has two different pivotal images or metaphors for material reality—what Kennan called “straight power concepts”: horses and houses.

      For ancient Israel, "horses" represented military might and prowess. One could even say that horses were as strategically important in ancient times as tanks were in World War II. Time after time Israel was seduced away from trust in Yahweh God to a national policy of "peace through strength." Listen to a few of the relevant texts:

      •Isaiah warns: "Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel" (31:1).

      •The Psalmist cautions: "Some boast of chariots, and some of horses; but we boast of the name of the Lord our God" (20:7).

      •And again: "A King is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save" (33:16-17).

      •Hosea gives this word from the Lord: "But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will deliver them by the Lord their God; I will not deliver them by bow, nor by sword, not by war, not by horses, not by horsemen" (1:7).

      It might be appropriate for us to paraphrase the text using terms more intelligible to modern ears: "I will not deliver them by Trident submarines, nor by Cruise or Pershing missiles, not by strategic defense initiatives or covert operations, not even by doctrines of full-spectrum dominance."

      Where "horses" for Israel represented military readiness, "houses" on the other hand was the metaphor for economic strength, for an expanding foreign market and international competitiveness, for increased productivity and consumer purchasing, and a larger Gross National Product. A few examples:

      •Isaiah pronounces this verdict: " the Lord looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold a cry! Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land" (5:7-8).

      •Amos makes this judgment: "Therefore because you trample upon the poor and take from them exactions of wheat, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them" (5:11).

      •Matthew's gospel notes: "Woe to you hypocrites! For you devour widows' houses and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive the greater condemnation" (23:14).

      •The Acts of the Apostles tells this story: "There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them; and distribution was made to each as any had need" (4:34).

      And what about the heart? In modern times, the heart is a metaphor for human emotions, as in "I love you with all my heart," or "she has a broken heart," or "my heart was pounding when I heard the news." For us, the heart is the "romantic" organ and is the most fickle of human organs. It is thought of as the center of emotions, sentiments, feelings. It is often portrayed in shallow terms as if lacking substantial resolve or commitment, as when someone says, "Well, my heart's just not in it."

      In Hebrew thinking, however, the heart was the center of decision-making, the place where every individual factor—rationality, emotions, intuition, social tradition, etc.—flowed together. The heart was the Supreme Court, if you will, adjudicating the various claims of each of the separate factors and handing down a final, irrevocable decision. The heart represented the deepest level of a human personality, representing the true picture of the person. The Latin word credo, from which we get the word "creed," comes from two words which together mean "I give my heart to." Listen to these texts:

      •Ezekiel gives voice to God's word: "And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my ordinances" (11:19-20).

      •The Psalmist sings: "It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice. They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, trusting in the Lord. Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid" (112:5-9).

      •Jeremiah predicts: "Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.…I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts" (31:31-34).

      •In Matthew, Jesus makes these striking claims: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (6:21).

      •From the Acts of the Apostles: "Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which they possessed were their own, but they had everything in common" (4:32).

      The point of comparing these three biblical metaphors is to illustrate the fact that decisions about horses and houses are made in the human heart. The Reign of God is rightly said to be about human hearts, because it is in the human heart that choices are made about ultimate trust and security. Such decisions are not merely social or political decisions. They are, at bottom, spiritual decisions. In biblical terms, therefore, giving one's "heart" to Jesus is in fact the most subversive, world-threatening thing that can happen to a person.

      We do a lot of very important things in this community of faith. A few of them are ambitious, even controversial: like starting a partnership with a church in Cuba; like supporting Linda as she undertook her resistance that will land her in jail in a couple weeks; like working with other congregations in Asheville to overcome racial and economic disparity.

      Many of the important things we do are much more modest: like celebrating St. Nicholas Day to provide our children with a different image of Jesus’ birthday; or raising funds to support the work of Helpmate in their struggle against domestic violence; or volunteering with Room in the Inn to provide shelter for homeless women—just to name a few.

      But none is more important than the heart question. None is more important that the constant forming and reforming of our vision.

      Week in, week out, blade touching earth, driven deep by force of boot; then lift, move over 6 inches, and repeat.

      [Hold up newspaper with “Let the dreams begin” headline]

      Sisters and brothers, this is not a dream. This is a fantasy. The real dream—the dream that has the power to confront and transform all our broken places—begins here, in this Circle, around this table.

©Ken Sehested @