Sunday, April 4, 2010


Ezekiel 36:26-28 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.

Now that 30 million more of us are guaranteed health care, are we any closer to receiving those brand new hearts, new knees, healthy new bodies? Will we then have renewed spirits, and walk in God’s statutes and ordinances?

I like to think that physical well-being does contribute to spiritual well-being. As a yoga teacher, that’s what I live by: that as we alleviate our aches and pains, become stronger and more limber, improve the healthy functioning of our organs, and train our minds, we improve our spiritual health.

But is physical health the same as spiritual health? What does it take to really get a new heart, not just a mechanically transplanted one?

And why would we want one? We’re fine just the way we are, aren’t we? We have decent jobs, nice homes, our kids turned out well, life is pretty pleasant all in all. Why rock the boat?

And besides our hearts are not made of stone. Don’t we tithe, and volunteer, buy fair trade, and use our own shopping bags? Isn’t that enough? If we gave any more we wouldn’t be able to pay for college, or travel, or buy Christmas presents. And isn’t it patronizing of me to try to change someone? And isn’t it enabling to help someone who should be helping themselves?

All of us content ourselves to some degree with our hearts of stone. How else would we get through our days? If I responded to every one of my email and phone solicitations with a donation, no matter how worthy the cause, I would be penniless. There are too many needs in the world for little me to meet. So I shut it off.

Recently, I got an email from an old college friend, encouraging Ed and me to go to the university reunion, because the Glee Club, where Ed and I met almost 30 years ago, would be reuniting and singing. This friend encouraged us to join the Facebook group for the Glee Club. I went to peek at the page, and found that instead of making me feel warm and nostalgic, it made me slightly nauseous. Why?

Were your young adulthood years your happiest? Who really wants to peak that early? To me, college was full of growing pains and hard-earned lessons. At that time I invested heavily in learning about and conforming to the dominant culture, studying European classics, reading literature authored by men, and adopting the privileged point of view of the white patriarchy. In the men’s Glee Club we women sang first tenor and wore tuxedoes for performances just like the men. It wasn’t so much a feminist statement as it was being “one of the boys.” Our director was a talented 40-something Juilliard grad with a wife and baby daughter. He acted like one of us, partying and carrying on. At the time we thought his heavy-drinking, philandering antics distasteful but somewhat amusing, but now, at age 67, he’s in prison for sexual assault of one of his 15 year-old students.

When I read this news, I thought about all the girls and women harmed by this person since we failed to report him back in the 70s and 80s. I thought about this 15 year-old girl and how the rest of her life might be affected, and what his own daughter might be feeling. Hundreds of us over the years knew our director was an alcoholic and sexual predator, and we acquiesced; that is, we stayed quiet. This is only one example of how, so often, we harden our hearts; decline to look at a difficult, painful, or confusing situation; and fail to change it.

Another reason why this situation bothers me is because this happened at an Ivy league school, at Columbia Unviersity, in the bastions of privilege. So often, the people who are the most privileged are the ones most likely to acquiesce. That is, the people who enjoy high status, who have financial stability and are well-connected, are the least likely to shake things up. They are rewarded by the status quo; why disrupt it? At the same time, they are the people most capable of making a difference because they have the educational, cultural, and economic capital required to effect change.

Just as a medical heart transplant is painful and risky, so is a spiritual heart transplant. We don’t want to be rude, presumptuous, or hurtful. Our hierarchical society tells us to stay in line and not speak out of turn. No one will want to be our friend, no one will like us. If we point out racism, we make someone feel bad. If we object to sexism, we’re told we’re being overly sensitive. We may lose friends. What we used to find acceptable we may now find intolerable. How much easier and safer it is to acquiesce, to laugh it off, to have another drink.

But that’s not the job description of a Christian. As Christians we are called to stand with the oppressed, not to identify with the oppressor. As Christians we don’t uphold the status quo, we challenge it. The famous aphorism of journalism also applies to Christians: we are here to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

For those many occasions when we fall short of our job description, we forgive ourselves and each other. Otherwise, how can we move on? How can we grow new hearts? The Easter message is that, although we are the very ones who crucified Jesus, we are also fully forgiven. As Christ forgives us, we must forgive ourselves and each other. As we practice forgiveness, our hearts soften, and become hearts of flesh.

When we have our new hearts, what happens? According to Ezekiel, we “walk in [God’s] statutes and [we are] careful to observe [God’s] ordinances.” Having a rebellious personality, my first reaction is, “Um, no thanks.” Yet another reason to avoid that spiritual heart transplant—my life will become even more boring. But upon further reflection, I see God’s statutes and ordinances not as restrictions, but as justice itself. We could consider God’s justice in the same light as the law of karma. My first yoga teacher, whose primary language was Spanish, explained karma with extreme simplicity: you get what you deserve. I might rephrase it as: eventually, the most just outcome for all prevails. Or as Martin Luther King Jr phrased it, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” With our new hearts of flesh, we have the power and courage to bend that arc of the moral universe more and more toward justice.

May we let Christ’s love and resurrection cleanse us, renew us, and turn our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, hearts of compassion. May we stand courageously with the oppressed. May we use our privilege not to protect ourselves from change, but as leverage for change. When Mary the mother of James, Mary Magdalene, and Salome come to Jesus’s tomb on Easter morning, the stone has been rolled away. The stone is gone! May we forgive ourselves and each other so that the stone of our hearts may also be removed. This Easter, may our hearts of stone indeed be transformed into hearts of flesh. Amen.