Monday, March 23, 2015

Zombie Heart

The scriptures referred to are Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-13.

Zombies are the only monsters that still creep me out. I grew up watching the old Universal Pictures about Dracula, Frankenstein's creature, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man and all the rest. I graduated to Roger Corman's color adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe's works which starred Vincent Price, and the films of Hammer Studios, which, while British, were much more graphic. But zombies, the shuffling undead, I find disturbing. So it's surprising that I kinda liked the recent zombie romcom, Warm Bodies. It starts with the internal monologue of a young-looking zombie we come to know as R. That's all he can remember of his former name and life. In his head, he laments the poor social skills and aimless existence of being a zombie. Things change when he falls for a living girl named Julie after eating the brains of her boyfriend and gaining his memories. By protecting her and using his limited ability to speak, they form a bond and his love makes him become more human daily. Yes, it's a silly conceit. And I'm sure the story of R. and Julie has Shakespeare, the author of the romantic tragedy on which this fluff is based, spinning in his grave.

The movie does not even try to explain how falling in love revives dead flesh, much less how the mere notion of love converts the other zombies. We just see that in their chests their hearts go from grey and still to bright red and beating. But then no horror movie gives a plausible explanation for how rotting corpses could continue to move nor why they eat brains. I think that Warm Bodies is an analogy, not about people being physically dead so much as being emotionally dead. The same is true in Simon Pegg's zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead. There are two scenes in that film which make this clear. In the first scene, we see Shaun trudging to work, oblivious of his neighbors doing their mindless morning activities. The second scene closely parallels the first, except it takes place after the night of the zombie apocalypse. Shaun, unawares, plods to work, this time oblivious to the fact that his neighbors are now the shambling undead. Part of the joke is just how long it takes Shaun to figure this out. In Warm Bodies, R. is shuffling around the airport, reminiscing how people there used to greet and interact socially with one another. But his flashback shows everyone walking through the terminal with their faces locked onto their cellphones. The point is that even before the apocalypse people were practically zombies. In both films, the zombies are in the end integrated back into society. In Shaun of the Dead, they are given jobs like retrieving shopping carts or reality show contestants. In Warm Bodies they become human again by appreciating life, meeting people and, of course, falling in love.

People sometimes think that rules fix all problems. And if you still have problems, you just need more rules. I'm not saying rules are unimportant. Right now we are teaching my granddaughter basic rules like “Don't hit.” “Don't bite.” “Don't take things that don't belong to you.” She is slowly picking these things up. The sad thing is there are people who never seem to learn these basic rules. And no amount of repeating these rules nor punishing these folks for breaking the rules seems to work. Even the people who make our laws don't seem to learn anything about such basic ideas as consensus, compromise and compassion. They lack the common sense to realize it is stupid to keep doing the same thing and over and over while expecting different results. Perhaps they could use some brains. And working hearts.

The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, contain 613 commandments according to Jewish scholars. And yet not everything one encounters in life is covered. So, during and after the Babylonian exile, rabbis discussed and wrote commentaries on the Torah called the Misnah, literally the “study.” They were still being compiled during Jesus' day. And then they wrote commentaries on the commentaries, called the Gemarah, or “completion.” All of this was collected as the “instruction” or Talmud, the definitive compendium of Jewish law. Jewish tradition holds that God gave Moses two forms of the law: the written law we have in scripture and the oral law which was eventually recorded in the Talmud.

If having and knowing the law bestowed virtue on folks then lawyers would be the most ethical people around. We know that's not true. Similarly, Christian clergy and Biblical scholars would be the most pure. But that doesn't match reality either. For human beings knowing what's right is not the same as doing what's right.

The Bible recognizes this fact. So why does it contain so many commandments? For the same reason that a medical textbook gives you baselines for healthy functioning livers, hearts, kidneys and all the rest: so you can compare and see if you need help. It will tell you that a healthy blood pressure should be around 120/80 or less. Your cholesterol should be below 200. Your blood sugar should be between 120 and 80. You should be able to close your eyes without falling over. If you are over 50 and able to stand on one foot for 20 seconds or more, you have a lower risk of stroke. These tell you what should be, not what is. They give you goals to aim for and standards which can be used to diagnose illness. And when you try to meet the standards of the Bible you see how spiritually ill you really are.

The truth is God knows we can't live up to them. So how do we get ourselves out of this mess? We don't. God does. And he does so by changing our hearts. In the Bible the heart is not pictured as the seat of a person's emotions alone but of his or her mind and will and character as well. The root of the Hebrew word for heart is obscure but could mean “center.” And the usage is very similar to our speaking of, say, “the heart of the matter.”

So when the Bible talks about the heart it means the center of who we are. In fact, C. Ryder Smith writes that “The first great commandment probably means 'You shall love... the Lord your God with all your heart—that is, with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'” And because of its centrality, the Bible has a lot to say about the human heart. In regards to our moral failures, it says, in the flood account in Genesis 6, that the reason God regretted making humans was that “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil all the time.” (Gen 6:5) The particular sin in this instance that ruins his creation in God's eyes is that the earth is filled with violence (Gen 6:11). The depth of human wickedness is addressed in Jeremiah 17:9. “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable—who can understand it?” Jesus said that it was from within the human heart that all the evil thoughts and actions come. (Mark 7:21) In 1 Samuel 16:7 we learn that it is impossible to fool God because he looks upon our hearts.

Since the problem is in our hearts, how do we fix it? By a change of heart. In Deuteronomy 30:6 the image used is that of God circumcising the hearts of his people. Since physical circumcision was a sign of a person becoming part of God's covenant people, the circumcision of the heart represented people being truly dedicated to the Lord through the altering of our innermost self. This idea is expressed in Ezekiel thus: “I will give them one heart and I will put a new spirit within them; I will remove the hearts of stone from their bodies and I will give them tender hearts.” (Ezek 11:19) And here in Jeremiah 31 it says, “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” says the Lord: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts...” In other words, what was external to us will become an integral part of us. It will be at the center of who we are—how we think, how we speak, how we act.

And this is not our own doing; it is accomplished by God's Spirit. As it says in our psalm, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.” This is Hebrew poetry so the first part of each verse is paralleled by the second part. The equivalent of God creating a clean heart in us is his renewing a right spirit within us. The taking away of God's holy Spirit is the same as being cast from his presence. The joy of God's saving help comes from being sustained by his bountiful Spirit. To have a true change of heart we need to have God's Spirit within us, cleaning our hearts, renewing and sustaining us.

For some people a change of heart takes place almost in a flash. They have a realization, a sudden shift in perspective and everything is changed. People in recovery call it a moment of clarity. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, their new life begins at that moment. For others the change in point of view happens gradually. It might be subtle and just below their radar or it might be a struggle that ends with surrendering to a new way of looking at things.

With the disciples it took a while. Being with Jesus they started to see things differently. Especially Jesus. They realized he was the Messiah. But even so, the full realization of his identity did not come to them until he rose from the dead. Easter turned the world upside down for them. They were thinking of a physical conquest and setting up a physical kingdom of God. But after the cross and the empty tomb, after dining with Jesus on the shores of Galilee and the pouring out of the Spirit on Pentecost, they realized that God wasn't going to establish his kingdom by killing enemies but by winning their hearts. They realized the kingdom wasn't a matter of boundaries but of God's boundless grace spreading throughout the world. Jesus wasn't interested in being enthroned on a seat of gold but in the hearts of all. And the blood shed would not be that of the conquered but of the king. This was a new way of being a kingdom.

But the new vision is only the beginning. A change of heart is a process. It starts with seeing the world or some major aspect of it differently. And that change in the way you see things leads to more changes. It may be a change in your chief goal in life. Which leads in turn to a change of your plans. If you are driving to St. Louis and suddenly decide to go to Europe, you need to do more than turn the steering wheel. You will need to figure out how you will cross the ocean. Will you sail or will you fly? Will you do it yourself or buy tickets? Will you need to pack different clothing? Where will you go there? Where will you stay? Where will you go from there?

If you suddenly see God as love, Jesus as Love Incarnate, and the Spirit as the sharing of that love with all those created in the image of God, then that means a change in the goal of life. It is no longer earthly success, or the accumulation of wealth and power, or being adored and worshiped by others. The goal of life is to go farther and deeper into the love of God. It is inviting others to share in that exploration. It is removing the obstacles that keep people from enjoying God's love—prejudice and hatred and exploitation and oppression and dehumanization and violence and everything else that keeps our focus on our lot in this life, good or bad, and keeps us from seeing Jesus in others.

And of course this shift of perspective and changing of goals and plans leads to a change in our behavior, our actions towards others, ourselves and God. Since we see everyone as created in God's image and redeemed by Christ's death, we are able to love others and act lovingly toward them. We can even love our enemies because we realize that everyone we meet is either a brother or sister in Christ or a potential brother or sister in Christ. We write off no one.

For this change of heart to happen, for this process to begin, carry on and culminate, we need God's Holy Spirit within us. Just as it is possible to shut your eyes to the sun it is possible to shut your heart to the Spirit. We need to check in constantly and keep in contact with him. We need to be open to his direction so that the goals we set and the means we use to achieve them are in line with the Spirit of God in Christ.

For as long as human beings have been around we have tried to control behavior through rules. But rules can only do so much. If the heart of a person isn't in it, they will find a way around the rules. They will find loopholes or just ignore the rules. You cannot legislate goodness. It must come from the heart. And that means we must have a change of heart. But that big a change can only come from God. We must open our hearts to him. We must let his Spirit in. We must let him change the way we see things, the way we think, our goals and plans and the way we act. Otherwise we are no better than spiritual zombies, shuffling through life, missing out on the love that can quicken our hearts and bring us a true vision of how life can be lived. 

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