Today is the Second Sunday of Advent, a day that recognizes the importance of God’s voice on earth, through prophecy and scripture. It is a Sunday that follows the first advent Sunday’s focus of hope in Christ.
As I seek to prepare my heart for this Christmas season, I’ve been thinking a lot about what a truly cruddy year 2016 has been, for a plethora of reasons (although Slate reminds me that 2016 actually hasn’t been nearly as bad as 1348, 1836, or 1919, so I should count my blessings), and I find 2017 approaching me simultaneously with the promise of a fresh slate and the dread of looming 2016 aftermath.
The end of a year is the promise of a new start, but I keep falling into cynical despair at how little I can singlehandedly do to control the wider powers of governments, war, and environmental destruction. To fend off cynicism, then, I am placing my hope not in my own arm of flesh but in God’s promise of a new heart, because fleshy hearts can do more than fleshy arms.
God promised Ezekiel a heart of flesh to replace his stony one, for soft hearts are easier to shape than hard, cynical ones.
In a lectionary post I wrote for Easter earlier this year, I quoted a passage from one of my favorite authors, the Catholic writer Brian Doyle, a man whose faith in Christ has bolstered my own more times than I can account for. Doyle, who is 60, recently learned that he is suffering from a brain tumor from which he is not expected to recover; he has reported that doctors give him one or two more years to be with his family and to write. This news hit me as cruel and unfair. In my desperation to hang onto things in this world that are truly beautiful and light, I am angry that God is threatening to take this voice away so quickly, to deprive us of the insights and messages Doyle would have inevitably published well into his golden years of old age, a testimony steeped in even more years of wisdom and experience.
Doyle himself has written about being angry with God. His essay, “Two Hearts,” is about his twin boys, one of whom was born with a rare heart defect that warranted several heart surgeries as a baby and young child. (You can read the whole essay in this Google ebook sample, by the way, but you should do yourself a favor and buy his essay collection Leaping as a Christmas present for yourself.) His essay is short, but it captures the messiness of striving to love God from inside this realm of mortality and pain and death. The paragraph that haunts me, that I’ve tried to write upon my own heart, illustrates this wrestle:
“There are many nights just now when I tuck Liam and his wheezing train station under my beard in the blue hours of night and think about his Maker. I would kill the god who sentenced him to such awful pain, I would stab him in the heart like he stabbed my son, I would shove my fury in his face like a fist, but I know in my own broken heart that this same god made my magic boys, shaped their apple faces and coyote eyes, put joy in the eager suck of their mouths. So it is that my hands are not clenched in anger but clasped in confused and merry and bitter prayer.”
The image of clenched fists transformed into a clasp of prayer represents, to me, the stony heart transformed into flesh. Doyle’s God is the God I hope for, the God who understands when I feel angry enough to stab, the God who will stay with me in the duration of the wrestle, who will not leave the room though he may allow me to, who will be there to catch me when my anger subsides and what I have left is my broken, frustrated heart that is ready to listen.
Doyle’s essay “How We Wrestle is Who We Are” is also about Liam, about how his broken physical heart is metaphorical of Doyle’s broken spiritual heart. It is a prayer for change, but not necessarily change of situation or change of scene; rather, it is a prayer for a change of self, in spite of situation and scene. Doyle says that “what we want to be is never what we are. Not yet.” Instead, it’s how we wrestle—how we keep looking forward, how we vacillate between anger and gratitude, grief and joy, doubt and faith, stone and flesh. Doyle writes:
“Eventually my son will need a new heart, a transplant when he’s thirty or forty or so, though Liam said airily the other day that he’s decided to grow a new one from the old one, which I wouldn’t be against him doing eventually, him being a really remarkable kid. But that made me think: if we could grow new hearts out of old ones, what might we be then? What might we be if we rise and evolve, if we come further down from the brooding trees and out onto the smiling plain, if we unclench the fist and drop the dagger, if we emerge blinking from the fort and the stockade and the prison, if we smash away the steel from around our hearts, if we peel the scales from our eyes, if we do what we say we will do, if we act as if our words really matter, if our words became muscled mercy, if we grow a fifth chamber in our hearts and a seventh and a ninth, and become as if new creatures arisen from our shucked skins, the creatures we are so patently and brilliantly and utterly and wholly and holy capable of becoming . . .
That is what I hope it means when God promised Ezekiel a “heart of flesh”—I hope it means our words of cynicism and despair become words of “muscled mercy.” That is my hope for 2017: that a great many of us trade in our pessimism, fear, and paranoia for such evolved, hopeful, empathetic hearts.
You can donate money to Brian Doyle’s family to help with the costs of hospital bills and cancer treatments at their GoFundMe page.
Mormon Lectionary Project
Second Sunday of Advent
The Collect: Dear God, please give us the right kind of hope. Please help us understand our prophets and our scriptures the right kind of way. Please guide us in our misdirections. We are grateful for the promise of new hearts. We are grateful for our broken hearts, for the evidence that gives of our fleshiness and non-stoniness. God, we ask you to be with us in our brokenness. We humbly ask for further light and knowledge that we might better understand what is good and what will strengthen the broken hearts around us. Most of all, dear God, we are thankful for Christ and His ultimate message that broken things can find redemption and that all fleshy things will live again.