Monday, July 4, 2016

The Heart of the Matter

Goodness, what a great summer we have been enjoying here in the Midwest.  I think we have swam more this summer so far than all of last year combined, and though the last few days have been unseasonably cool, we are hoping to enjoy some splashing in the sun by this afternoon.

Maybe it's just us, but every year there seems to be that one item that we have purchased, undoubtedly on clearance at the end of the last summer season, that everyone wants.  Sometimes it is a particular raft, other times a pool toy that has unknown magical powers!  Goggles are the coveted item in this year's pool.  Not just any pair though, because we have at least 4 pairs out there at last count.  No, this years coveted goggles are THE ones (yep just one pair) that not only cover your eyes and allow the ability to see underwater without that awful chlorine burn, but also cover your nose so that you don't have to plug it. These goggles are not too big, not too small, but alas, these goggles are just right.  More than one squabble has erupted over this coveted pair of goggles.

The other day as I was watching my Skyler girl swimming around in the goggles it made me remember my pool days from years gone by. (More years than I care to mention:) I remember as a little girl, laying on my back underwater and looking up through the water at the distorted view of what was above the waters. Sometimes I would squint my eyes and try to make sense of what it was I was actually seeing, while other times I would swim around oblivious to what was actually happening above the water or even right around me. Other times, as I navigated the murky lake waters, I was only able to see what was right in front of me.

Actually that is exactly how I could describe these last few years.  I have been so overwhelmed with the circumstances around me that I have not always been able to see very clearly and only had the time or energy to focus on what was right in front of me.  Raising 8 kids is not an easy task under normal circumstances, but when you factor in the additional circumstances of NEVER ENDING court dates and battles, multiple false allegations, constant caseworker visits, a broken foster care system, extended family heartache, and ministry challenges you have a recipe for short sighted survival mode.

That's it really, these past few years we have just been treading water and surviving.  We could see the shore in the distance but every time we tried to swim toward it, we would be swept away by the current of our circumstances.  If you know me, then you know that a lot of time was spent making sure everyone had on their life vests, and that they were nice and tight, but it seems that no sooner would I get one life vest tethered up just right, that another would come loose and I would have to turn my attention to that situation.  Eight years of this can be exhausting.  Eight years of this has been exhausting. On more than one occasion I have comforted myself with the lyrics of the old hymn, "Oh soul are you weary and troubled, no light in the darkness you see? There's light for a look at the Savior and life more abundant and free. Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace." (Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus written by Helen Lemmel)

I imagine that Paul could relate to my circumstances when he penned these words in 2 Corinthians 4:

 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 

Paul was weary from the constant trouble of his day, not the same troubles that I have been facing, and probably not the troubles that you have been facing, but a troubled heart is a troubled heart.  And though I do not know what trials you are facing this day, I know the same God that Paul writes about and the hope He brings.  Paul ends that same chapter by writing:

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Have you ever read a passage like that and walked away thinking, "Well good for you Paul. I'm glad it worked out for you, but I'm just not feeling it?" In all honesty I can say that I have.  I know that Jesus told us that in this world we would have trouble, and reassured us to  "take heart" because he has overcome the world. (John 16:33)  It's just that I didn't expect to have this much trouble and I am disillusioned by the weight of these last eight years.  And I have allowed my heart to become heavy with things rather than trusting God with them, and in doing so my heart sprung a leak and began taking in water.  Heavier and heavier it grew and I just keep doggie paddling.  Treading water will help you survive but doesn't really get you closer to the shore.  What it does get you is tired.  Unless...

Unless you are conditioned for it.  If you have taken the time to practice treading, to prepare your body for the endurance  it takes to stay afloat, to strengthen your core, then you can endure hours, weeks, and even years of treading water. No one makes it to the Olympics without hours, months and years of training and painful, and tiring workouts.

Our Spiritual bodies are no different, we must exercise our faith muscles to make them stronger.  We must work on the core of our spirit in order to strengthen our overall spirit.  So what is the core of our spirit?  I believe it is our heart.  The Bible is filled with verses about the heart and when we talk about giving our lives to Christ, we ask Him to come and live IN our hearts.  One of my favorite verses is a reminder to us of how important it is to take good care of our heart. Proverbs 4:23 tells us, "Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it." 

Sounds like a core muscle to me!
Oh but these last few years my heart has felt so heavy, weighed down by the realities of the world, by my own poor choices, and sometimes I have just been going through the motions of being a Christian because it is what's expected.  I was sure God had a different answer for the trials I was facing, and when the battled ended and I was not the one taking the victory lap, something happen inside of me.  My core spiritual muscle got broken. And sometime during that battle, I lost heart, like an athlete who is on fire and overflowing with talent and then suffers a major injury and never really regains his or her fire for the game.  The headlines read, "Star Athlete Loses Heart." That is where I was standing, or rather laying.  My heart hasn't really been in it.  I continued to go to church, what else would the pastor's wife do?  I  continued to pray for others, to encourage others to walk in the faith, and to believe that God is who He says He is.  But my heart was working on autopilot and my vision was distorted as I lay flat on my back in the pool of brokenness.

This is not a good place to be, and after awhile you either run out of breath and die, or you muster your strength and swim to the surface to take a fresh breath of air.  The choice is yours, the air is available to everyone, if you want to put forth the effort it will take to swim to the surface.  I love this promise from Ezekiel 36 verse 26, "26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh."
A new heart is there, fresh for the taking.  We can chose to leave our heart of stone behind and exchanged for a heart of flesh.  The best news is that God will perform the surgery, we just have to ask Him to!  Beyond that, He wants to serve as our personal trainer, strengthening our core muscle so that we can endure the hardships that are sure to come, and to heal from those that have already left their mark on us.

Last summer I read a book written by Dutch Sheets entitled, Hope Restored, and I assume it was the inspiration for Danny Gokey's new hit.  (You can listen to that here.) Pastor Sheets tells the amazing story of a heart surgeon who was struggling to get a patient's heart to restart.  Finally, out of other options, he leans down and whispers in the patient's ear, "Tell your heart to beat again," and miraculously that is exactly what happens!  He goes on to relate that perhaps God is saying that as He looks down into our broken hearts, the wounds are deep and our core is damaged.  Healing is on the shore, but every time we start to make progress toward it, we are swept again into the current by our circumstances.  Remember the story of Peter, who walked on the water with confidence UNTIL he took his eyes off Christ and began to sink (Matthew 14)? Perhaps, we simply need to, turn our eyes "upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face..."  and then we will be able to take a fresh new breath and exchange our heavy hearts for hearts that are renewed and strengthened for what lies ahead?  Will you join me for a swim?