I hate Bank Holidays. I do. There’s no point to them. Once upon a time, yes, maybe they were a good and useful marker for people in commerce who needed the break, wage slaves poring over huge ledgers with quills in a freezing back room (I blame Dickens and Bob Cratchit for that image). But now? Come on! We all have weeks and weeks of holidays. And a Bank Holiday isn’t long enough to do anything useful, it doesn’t mark anything, or celebrate anything. And if you are by nature a depressive, as I am, and you have no husband or kids or friends nearby, well…. it’s bloody. That’s it. It’s just bloody. Bloody empty, long, boring, grey, isolated, pointless. And dangerous – it’s so easy to step into the cloud of depression.
So when we get one of these damn things (what’s my swearing score so far? ) I make plans and a determined effort to be undefeated by it. I give myself a stern talking to , ‘You are responsible for your own emotions, Luce, no one else’. And then I swear a bit at me and tell me not to be so sanctimonious and boring, and I stick my fingers in my ears and go ‘La la la’ …. but some of the lecture gets through.
So today I took responsibility for myself: Me and the dog went for a longer walk than usual (wonderfully blustery day on the beach) and I came home to a leisurely coffee, lit all the lamps, lit the fire (I know, I know, it’s still August but honestly – it’s cold) and got out my patchwork. Then I went to the Rosebank Union Church website in Johannesburg and downloaded a sermon from Leigh Robinson. It’s on ‘Transformation’ and it’s 50 minutes of solid teaching and great encouragement. Leigh is nearing the end of his appointment as Senior Pastor at this large and busy church in North Johannesburg. I can’t say he’s coming up to retirement because I don’t believe he will ever retire. God made him a Pastor and that’s that. That’s who he is. But he is coming to the end of this phase of his life, in this role, in this church, and his last sermon series is titled ‘From Your Pastor’s Heart.’ This strikes a chord with me because my own Pastor here in Wales talks about our hearts quite a lot (a lot). One of his favourite sayings at the moment is ‘Jesus is brilliant – He says the words our hearts need to hear.’ and just yesterday we had a sermon about stoney hearts, cluttered hearts, shallow hearts and good hearts.
Sometimes I have a hard heart, or it might be a bit cluttered, or flighty and shallow, and – rarely – it’s good. At the moment it’s in a helluva state. Physically, I mean. Yesterday I woke feeling ill and by the time I got to church my heart was racing. I get this occasionally; horrible tachycardia followed by a day or two of arrhythmia. I’ve had these bouts ever since my husband died – in fact the very first one was the night after he died, so I know it’s as much about the emotion of the heart as it is about the physiology of it. It doesn’t frighten me, I think it’s scarier for those who see it, and I just wait for it to pass.
We take our tickers for granted, until something goes wrong. If we live to be 70 our hearts will have beaten over 3 million times! With no effort required from us! The cells of heart muscle are the only cells in the body that contract independently of our central nervous system. They jog on whether we want them to or not. That thought brings me to a whole new understanding of the phrase ‘not through works, but through grace.’ I can’t make my heart beat, and neither can I stop it beating by force of will alone, it beats because it beats. It’s a sort of grace, this small vital piece of God’s engineering. His gift. Life.
It is there whether I believe in it or not. Like God.
I become aware of it only when it misses a beat or speeds up, and even then I can do nothing to bring it back into line. Occasionally it wakes me from a deep sleep, in response to a night terror and only when the world comes into focus and I see the terror for the delusion that it is, the heart calms and returns to normal. My old heart.
The heart has played a huge part in my life. George was a fit man; he was a great oarsman, used to run 20k a day, we didn’t have a frying pan in the house, he had smoked but had given up when our daughter was born. If you’d looked at his life style in the 14 years we were married, you wouldn’t have said he was a candidate for a heart attack. But if you looked at his childhood, yes, he was a heart attack just waiting to happen. George was brought up in Glasgow, fed by a mum who believed in a good hearty fry-up for breakfast, sugar to give you energy and stodge to fill you up. And your childhood colours your life – even when he was a Judo and rowing fanatic, even when he was running mile upon mile through the sugar cane in Durban, his idea of a treat was stuck way back in his early years, a fry-up. That’s why we didn’t have a frying pan in the house. I was determined that George would not succumb to a heart attack. But he did. Regardless of my efforts (which he deplored btw!) his childhood and adolescent years pursued him. In the post mortem they discovered that his heart was hypertrophic – a tough knot of hardened muscle. The condition was chronic and would have started early in those Glasgow years, most likely masked by his athleticism, in a benign syndrome known as athletic bradycardia. And who are we kidding? He didn’t leave the fried food behind in Glasgow; I could put healthy food on the table but I couldn’t stop him sneaking off to the Little Chef for an all-day breakfast. I was working as a nurse, doing long shifts, and I would leave carefully crafted meals in the fridge with notes about re-heating or cooking, and I would come back to find them still there, because he loved taking Lou off to MacDonalds or The Little Chef (remember them?). And she loved those excursions too. They were Dad and daughter times of shared fun and love for the two of them. There is more to life than diet.
Discounting these small forays into fast food, he could run and lift weights and do circuits and row and do everything else in the way of cardio vascular exercise, but as he did all these ‘good’ things he was, unwittingly, making his silent and unrecognised condition worse, by masking it.
Our hearts are wonderful. And deceptive.
Yesterday the act of putting jigsaw pieces back in their box exhausted me, and when I rested my head on the box, I woke up nearly two hours later. Today I have walked for over an hour and I’m as fit as a fiddle.
Our hearts are wonderful and deceptive.
Philip Larkin said, in a typically self-pitying, glum whinge ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.’ but he got it wrong. We do that to ourselves. Our nature wrecks us, unfits us for life, or for life as God intended it to be. We don’t need the help of a parent to hit the rocks. He would have been more accurate if he had written ‘Our childhood fucks up, our early years’ or, more accurately still ‘ They fuck us up, our hearts.”
Your heart now has been shaped by what happened to it when you were a child. Were you loved, cared for, sheltered? Your heart will reflect that now. Were you afraid, unloved, alone? Your heart will bear a few scars. Just as George had a physical heart that was damaged and shaped by his early years, just as I have an emotional heart shaped by my experiences, so your personality will have been shaped by whatever you went through. But the good news is that you are not stuck there. Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done or had done to you, you are not incurably damaged. Our hearts, even our deceptive hearts can be transformed. That’s what life’s all about. Taking our deliciously wicked, broken, hypertrophic, tachycardic, faltering hearts and filling them, filling them, filling them with healing love. Not our love , we know that’s useless and untrustworthy, we fall in and out of love, we’re no good at it, but a pure love, a great and sacrificial gentle, merciful and wonderful love. The love of Jesus. Impossible? Nothing is impossible for God. Or with God.
As I listened to Leigh’s sermon this morning, and thought about Rob’s sermon yesterday, and examined the state of my heart right now, I laughed aloud, properly aloud, making the dog look up. This is what bank holidays are for, or were for, when they were first declared; so that whoever you were, whether poor lowly Bob Cratchit or Henry Ford or Rothschild, you had a whole day to turn away from the busyness of life, a chance to rest the heart, to examine it, a respite from the pursuit of earthly treasure ‘for where your treasure is, there your heart will be, also’.
There’s that heart again.
A Bank Holiday is time out for the heart. Here’s wishing your heart a steady and loving rhythm, and a great big infilling and overflowing of the love of Jesus Christ. The only kinda love worth a bean.
PS. Sorry to those who have already read and so missed this: George had come to know Christ as his Lord and Saviour just a few months after I had. This scientific engineer died of a cold, hard and faulty heart, but his real heart, his soul, was warm and loving and healed. Not his work…. God’s.
And Leigh, who I wrote about above, was the one who told George about the great good new of Jesus. And so a blog circles around and meets itself coming back!