The Heart of Words (Matthew 12:33-37)

A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. You can tell what a tree is like by the fruit it produces. You are a bunch of evil snakes, so how can you say anything good? Your words show what is in your hearts. Good people bring good things out of their hearts, but evil people bring evil things out of their hearts. I promise you on the day of judgment, everyone will have to account for every careless word they have spoken. On that day they will be told they are either innocent or guilty because of the things they have said. (Contemporary English Version)

Words are important. They have meaning and power.

Our speech is the outward demonstration of what is really within the heart. There really isn’t any room to believe that a constant stream of gossip, backbiting, slander, and negative comments is anything but coming from a heart of evil. The person who speaks such words is not a loving, gracious, merciful person. Conversely, the person who continually encourages, uplifts, and seeks to be positive, reflects a deep heart of love for others.

Therefore, simply altering our speech when we’re around particular people is not the point; and it does no good. That kind of talking only breeds hypocrisy and is two-faced. Instead, the place to aim is the heart because that’s where the words come from. And the way to truly renovate a heart is to sub-contract the project to Jesus.

The people we typically hang-out with the most are the people that most influence our attitudes and our speech. 

So, if we spend copious amounts of time with Jesus, it’s inevitable that our hearts will become more like his heart, and thus, our words will be in alignment with the words and ways of Christ. Be rooted in Christ and the fruit of the tree will demonstrate it.

I always find public confessions on TV to be a rather disingenuous affair. Typically, celebrity apologies only take shape when one has been caught saying something and are called on the carpet. Then, when the apology comes, it’s predictably odd and incongruent, with the person saying something to the tune of, “I’m sorry if I hurt anybody by what I said. Saying that really wasn’t me. I’m not really like that.”

Well, apparently you are. It came out of your mouth. Jesus said that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The words we say out loud betray what is truly inside us.

Jesus used the metaphor of a tree to illustrate his point. If the roots, the trunk, and the branches are good and healthy, then you can be sure the tree will produce good healthy fruit. However, if the tree is diseased, or infested with insects and rotting from the inside out, then no one can expect anything other than bad fruit, not fit to consume.

If the fruit is bad, the tree is bad. If the words are hateful, sarcastic, passive-aggressive, manipulative, conniving, racist, hurtful, ignorant, mean, unjust, foolish, and either subtly or overtly abusive, then the person has a dark heart and is need of redemption, not excuses.

Conversely, if the words are affirming, encouraging, loving, compassionate, gentle, caring, direct, helpful, peaceful, kind, giving hope and life, then there is a good heart behind it.

Yes, bad hearts can parrot good words. However, those words are not genuine but mere rote recitations to achieve some sort of personal agenda. And, of course, good people will occasionally say dumb or hurtful words. In such times, let it be a reminder that we all have some shadowy places within our hearts – and that we must depend on God’s grace to enlighten those dark spaces.

Let’s observe patterns, rather than focusing on isolated events where either good or bad words were said. A consistent pattern of invalidating another’s experiences or feelings; intimidating or threatening others; dismissing or discounting someone’s input; or being unnecessarily blunt, are all major red flags pointing to a severe heart issue.

Evil exists in the world. And if we are not vigilant to the power of language, wickedness can easily smack us upside the head when we aren’t looking.

The heart cannot be concealed forever. Eventually, the virtuous person will be shown as such by the stream of gracious speech which pours forth from the heart, as if it were living water for others to drink and enjoy. Their words reflect their good character.

The wicked person, however, cannot keep the bad words down. Those vile words sit in the soul, poisoning and making the person ill. Then, all of a sudden, the evil words come up and out with a great vomitous heave and spew impurity and unholiness all over the innocent. Their words betray their foolish and poor character.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. The wicked heart will not be able to speak ill of others with impunity forever. They will be called to account for their abusive words, whether overtly violent, or subtly undermining.

The righteous heart, however, shall experience divine pleasure and reward, as if the careful construction of helpful and building up words wins first-prize at the great heavenly fair.

The good person loves and does not hate. They are so far from harming anyone that they even pray and wish well for their enemies. They pray for blessings on those who curse them. There is an honest striving to speak good words to everyone, regardless of who they are.

The upright heart thinks the best of everyone and holds nothing over someone else’s head. Such a good heart condemns no one, leaving all judgment to God alone. It is patient with the most exasperating of people, praying they might come to their senses and become spiritually healthy.

The righteous are able to use their speech to admonish their neighbor with care and affection. They freely forgive, happily give, liberally encourage, and use their tongue to speak words of life. Indeed, their speech is wise, humble, full of grace, and above all, loving.

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit so that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

God and the Human Condition (Romans 1:18-25)

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those who by their injustice suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them because God has made it plain to them. Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been seen and understood through the things God has made.

So they are without excuse, for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (New Revised Standard Version)

Exchanging Good for Bad

Nature abhors a vacuum. Everything is filled with something. If one thing is given up, another thing will take its place. Change is actually more like an exchange of one thing for another. Something is taken out, then replaced with something different.

We have exchanged:

  • Behavior that attends to the common good of all persons, for self-interested behavior to what is good for me and my family and/or group
  • Good deeds done from a pure heart, for good deeds done from an impure heart which give me an advantage or leverage over another
  • Steadfast committed love of others, for hustled love that gets discarded whenever things get hard
  • Submission to one another out of a sense of sacred reverence, for disobedience to anyone I don’t like
  • Dignity of being an image-bearer of God for the shame and ignominy of self-image
  • Majesty and worth of all persons in the world, for becoming masters of small worlds
Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels.com

And that’s not all, there’s more. We also have a nasty tendency to replace:

  • Freedom for shackles
  • Virtue for vice
  • Morality for immorality
  • Justice for injustice
  • Goodness for ungodliness
  • Truth for a lie
  • Wisdom for foolishness
  • Immortality for mortality
  • Honor for dishonor
  • Devotion for disregard
  • God for gods

These are all very poor replacements. In fact, the exchanges are so dark that they leave us in a state of guilt before God and all creation. Indeed, we all have sinned and fallen short of our intended purpose on this earth.

Guilt and Shame

Our response must not exchange guilt for shame because they are different words:

Guilt is assigned by God so that repentance and reconciliation might happen.

Shame, however, is introduced by us; we are the ones who label ourselves as a bucket of pig slop, not God.

Guilt is a function of the conscience, letting us know when we have said or done something wrong or hurtful; it is specific to a particular action or lack of action.

Shame, however, is a function of the “inner critic.” It interprets bad words or actions as we ourselves being bad, focusing not on actions but on our very personhood in the form of judgmentalism leveled at myself.

Guilt says, “I have done something bad.”

Shame, however, says, “I am bad.”

Guilt serves a redemptive purpose through alerting us that we need to deal with a wrong.

Shame, however, damages our spirits through telling us we are flawed and unworthy of love and connection with others.

Because guilt and shame are not the same, they need to be dealt with in different ways.

Guilt, if not faced and dealt with, becomes gangrene of the soul. Over time it festers and poisons our spirits, leading to significant emotional and sometimes physical problems. Forgiveness (both in apologies and in forgiving oneself) is the primary tool in dealing with guilt.

Shame, however, lives in the shadows and feeds on secrets. If shame persists, we withdraw from others and experience grinding loneliness. Therefore, the path out of shame is to openly name your shame and tell your story – thus taking away shame’s power and giving it back to yourself. Vulnerability is the tool which erases shame.

“Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged and healed.”

Brené Brown

Emotional Creatures

In the absence of light, there is darkness. Purging oneself of belief in God merely means that another god will take her place. Scripture labels this “idolatry.”

What’s more, in the absence of feeling, in the quest to absolve oneself of unwanted emotions, there still remains emotion – because humans are emotional creatures.

People mostly rid themselves of any god concept because of how they feel about it. In fact, we do just about everything in life based on our emotions. This is a good thing, not a bad thing. We get into problems and fuss about emotions mucking up things, only because we never faced those feelings to begin with.

A person will never know God unless they understand this. The worship of God and the practice of Christianity is not only to engage the mind and the spirit, but also the body and the emotions.

Emotions and feelings are not like foreign microbes that enter the body as unwanted interlopers. They didn’t enter humanity as part of the world’s curse, after Adam and Eve’s fall into disobedience. No!

Rather, we are our emotions, just as much as we are our body, mind, and soul. Therefore, every emotion which exists, resides in us, all the time. We cannot purge ourselves of our emotions any more than we can remove the heart, the brain, or the bowels, and then expect to live.

Denying our emotions, suppressing feelings, and leaving them unacknowledged is terribly unhealthy and will slowly kill us – because our emotions are vital to our very existence.

Getting Rid of God

There are millions of spiritually dead zombies walking the earth who have jettisoned God altogether – either deliberately or unwittingly – because they discarded their emotions, long before they exchanged the sacred for the secular.

We all sometimes get physically ill; it’s part of the human condition, and we all understand that. So, we go to bed, or to the doctor, or to the hospital’s emergency department – depending upon the severity of our illness. We even go to a physician when we are healthy, just to get a check-up and make sure everything in the body is working as it should.

We also all get spiritually and emotionally ill; it’s part of the human condition. But we all don’t understand that. So, we soldier on, going about our regular business as if everything is hunky-dory. We don’t attend to our emotional selves. We don’t slow down and address what’s going on, or go to a church, or go to anyone. Instead, we suffer in silence.

Just as it ludicrous to get rid of the body altogether whenever we get a disease, so we must not rid ourselves of God whenever we get spiritually and emotionally sick. We face the illness and deal with it. It might require surgery. Recovery will hurt. That’s all part of facing it.

Ignoring God is about as smart as ignoring a heart attack. It might go away for a short time, but it’ll come back with a vengeance and do you in.

Emotions aren’t to blame when things are rough. Neither is God to blame when bad stuff happens. Both our emotions and God are realities we must deal with.

Just like the force of gravity is always there and needs to be respected (by not simply walking off the roof of your house, believing you don’t need gravity anymore) so the person and the power of God is always here and we absolutely need to come to terms with that reality, instead of walking away.

What will you do?…

Take the Path of Peace (Zechariah 1:1-17)

Michelangelo’s depiction of the prophet Zechariah, Sistine Chapel, Rome

In the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo:

“The Lord was very angry with your ancestors. Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty. Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the Lord. Where are your ancestors now? And the prophets, do they live forever? But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your ancestors?

“Then they repented and said, ‘The Lord Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do.’”

On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo.

During the night I had a vision, and there before me was a man mounted on a red horse. He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses.

I asked, “What are these, my lord?”

The angel who was talking with me answered, “I will show you what they are.”

Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, “They are the ones the Lord has sent to go throughout the earth.”

And they reported to the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.”

Then the angel of the Lord said, “Lord Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah, which you have been angry with these seventy years?” So the Lord spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.

Then the angel who was speaking to me said, “Proclaim this word: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, and I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they went too far with the punishment.’

“Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the Lord Almighty.

“Proclaim further: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’” (New International Version)

God hulking-out isn’t something you want to see repeated, insisted the prophet.

Zechariah directed his message to the Jews returning from their exile in Babylon. He reminded them that their parents and forebears had been called to repent and return to the Lord. They didn’t. Hence, the Babylonian exile. Big hint from the prophet to the people: Don’t ever do that again. Things will get angry, large, and green if you do.

Zechariah’s generation was being given a chance: To live into God’s covenant and law; to hold fast onto their identity as God’s people.

The people listened to the prophet. They expressed their repentance and a desire to turn from past evil ways and embrace the ways of the Lord. And the returning exiles also acknowledged and accepted God’s judgment. The returning exiles understood that, as a people, they deserve the consequences to centuries of neglecting justice, mercy, and humility.

Every generation of believers must learn from the past. Not only do they need to receive the teachings and traditions of those who went before them, but each generation must also struggle with how to put that teaching and tradition into practice.

The past needs to be squarely faced and deliberately pulled into the present. That is the way a genuine hope is born, giving direction for the future. In other words, old words and ways from the past need new experiences in the present; only by doing this will there be guidance.

Bring in your kingdom so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven. (Matthew 6:10, CEB)

Today’s Old Testament lesson includes the first of eight night visions from the prophet Zechariah. The gist of the first prophetic oracle is a message of assurance and comfort: God will restore. The Lord will renew.

Divine intervention is about to happen in the rebuilding of the temple – a physical example of the spiritual reality that is happening. Just as the ancient temple was being restored for new generations of worshipers, so the people were being renewed to be an example of piety and fidelity to God for millennia to come.

Peace and prosperity will again be realized.

Throughout Scripture, trees are a symbol of a thriving and flourishing life. The myrtle tree is a sign of God’s promise to bring new life, branching out to spread into the next generations. Like all trees, the myrtle needs plenty of moisture when young. Yet, it is distinctive in that the myrtle tree can tolerate drought, grow despite limited soil, and remain hardy when it becomes mature.

Your anger lasts a little while,
but your kindness lasts
    for a lifetime.
At night we may cry,
but when morning comes
    we will celebrate. (Psalm 30:5, CEV)

“Tolerate,” “grow,” and “remain” are anything but passive words. People are more than mere observers. “Repent” and “return” and “renew” are verbs. There is a great deal of activity to do. A divine/human cooperation needs to occur. On God’s end, even the angels get involved in the action. What’s happening here is both heavenly and earthly business.

Relational dynamics between God and God’s people are to be a dialogue and not a one-sided monologue. The Lord and the present generation are to demonstrate for future peoples how peace is actually realized and enjoyed.

The Vision of Zechariah, by Unknown artist, c.1300 C.E., Sicily

Like all biblical visions, Zechariah’s is not readily understandable. Nobody is sure about what the symbolism is behind the vision’s horses. Yet, I’ll venture to say that it’s the colors which are significant: red is the color of action; brown is a color of stability and fertility; and white represents purity and holiness. Red, brown, and white mixed together creates a beige color.

Beige is an earthy and dependable color. It’s an inherently welcoming and calming color, offering warmth and symbolizing harmony and comfort. Together, with the horses we have a representation of strength, stability, and structure. They are signs of peace and rest, of God’s shalom.

Spiritual wholeness, moral integrity, relational harmony, and settled peace don’t just magically happen. 

For the Christian, peace was bought at a price – the blood of Jesus. (Colossians 1:20)

Peace must be both passively received and actively pursued. (Ephesians 4:3)

Practices of peace need to be engrafted into our lives so that we might daily experience it. (Romans 14:13-15:7)

The name “Zechariah” is a Hebrew word meaning, “God remembered.” God has not forgotten divine promises. 

The time has come to take hold of the vision God had from the very beginning to walk with humanity in continual fellowship and happiness in the garden, a place of abundant growth, beauty, and health – a place of peace and rest.

The happiest, fully rested, and most peaceful people and nations on earth continually find a steady stream of joy in their families, their rituals/traditions, and their religion.

To find joy and happiness in life is to find peace and rest. And peace is something to be shared, to be passed onto others.

“The peace of Christ be with you.”

“And also with you.”

Such ritual words and practices are reminders of continually returning to the Lord and finding simplicity and satisfaction in Jesus.

In observing and celebrating the Lord’s Table, we find our penultimate remembrance of how peace was achieved, as well as our supreme participation in the triune God.

Perhaps, then, peace and prosperity will extend their tree-like branches over the earth and into the next generations.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Peace before us,
Peace behind us,
Peace under our feet.

Peace within us,
Peace over us,
Let all around us be peace.

Christ before us,
Christ behind us,
Christ under our feet.

Christ within us,
Christ over us,
Let all around us be Christ. – a Navajo Prayer

Depression Is Our Teacher (Psalm 102:1-17)

Lord, hear my prayer!
    Let my cry reach you!

Don’t hide your face from me
    in my time of trouble!
Listen to me!
    Answer me quickly as I cry out!

Because my days disappear like smoke,
    my bones are burned up as if in an oven;
    my heart is smashed like dried-up grass.
    I even forget to eat my food
    because of my intense groans.
    My bones are protruding from my skin.

I’m like some wild owl—
    like some screech owl in the desert.
I lie awake all night.
    I’m all alone like a bird on a roof.

All day long my enemies make fun of me;
    those who mock me curse using my name!

I’ve been eating ashes instead of bread.
    I’ve been mixing tears into my drinks
        because of your anger and wrath,
        because you picked me up and threw me away.

My days are like a shadow soon gone.
    I’m dried up like dead grass.

But you, Lord, rule forever!
    Your fame lasts from one generation to the next!

You will stand up—
        you’ll have compassion on Zion
        because it is time to have mercy on her—
    the time set for that has now come!

Your servants cherish Zion’s stones;
    they show mercy even to her dirt.

The nations will honor the Lord’s name;
    all the earth’s rulers will honor your glory
    because the Lord will rebuild Zion;
    he will be seen there in his glory.

God will turn to the prayer of the impoverished;
    he won’t despise their prayers. (Common English Bible)

Author Marianne Williamson tells the story concerning a study of a group of chimpanzees. Supposedly, researchers observed primate behavior which correlates to human depression, such as eating at odd times, spending lots of time alone, and staying on the outskirts of the group. This behavior was observed in about 10% of the chimps, which is about the same percentage of Americans who show symptoms of depression. 

The scientists removed the depressed chimps for six months, to see how this would affect the behavior of the other 90%. You might think that in the absence of the depressed individuals, the remaining majority would produce another 10% of depressed chimps. Instead, when scientists returned six months later, all the non-depressed chimps were dead.

The interpretation and conclusion of the study is that the depressed chimps had functioned as a kind of early warning system, continually looking out for predators, tropical storms, and other threats to the group. Without that system in place, the group was doomed.

Whether the study can be substantiated, or is a fabrication, for those who pay careful attention to the inner person, knowing there is much more to us than physical pathology, this account of chimpanzees resonates deeply.

More than a mere problem to be fixed, depression can also serve as an asset to society. Depressed persons can serve an important role, providing a critical mass of individuals uniquely suited to guarding against danger.

I am not trying to put a positive spin on a terrible malady of mind and spirit. Instead, I’m simply pointing out that there is a lot going on beyond an individual’s inner sadness and struggle; it is also a community’s struggle.

Reading today’s psalm, especially if you read it aloud, you can feel the expression of deep lament borne from a person going through a major depression. Although there are persons in the church and society who, unfortunately, believe depression to be a sin, we get no such judgment from Holy Scripture. Depression just is.

Consider the following biblical characters:

  • Elijah became depressed. The prophet’s depression served as a sign and warning that there was something horribly awry in ancient Israel. Jezebel was the wicked queen, pulling the strings in a nation connected in a web of evil which permeated the land.
  • Moses became despondent time and again. The leader’s depressed spirit pointed to the faithless network of apostasy that kept rearing its golden calf in the life of the Israelite people.

Whenever we, as contemporary persons, become depressed it can and should serve as a billboard to others that something is terribly askew among us, and not just within the individual.

Please know that I fully believe depression ought to be addressed and treated so that the depressed person can come around again to a sense of happiness and hopefulness. Yet, there are also emotionally “healthy” people who try to push pills, hurry along therapy, and pronounce exhortations to the despondent people around them. It’s almost as if depressed folk make others uncomfortable and uneasy.

If depression points to societal ills, not just personal sickness, then it makes sense that non-depressed people want depressed people to get healthy now, because then they don’t have to take a good hard look at the systemic problems of our society and culture. 

Whenever we rush to make someone feel better, typically the person we really want to help is ourselves.

Depression and emotional struggles must be deeply felt, examined, and carefully dealt with. Thus, enter the psalmist. The sheer volume of laments in the psalter ought to clue us in that this is important work. Sadness and grief can get trapped in us like monkeys in a cage. Reciting psalms of lament can help express what is within us and serve as the pick which unlocks us to freedom.

Dealing with depression is a process. It takes time and therapy, perseverance and patience, to heal. Learning new ways to accept, cope, and transcend are difficult – they take time. Cheap hope is a switch which can be easily flipped; genuine hope is a large heavy gate that needs effort to open.

While the depressed among us learn to hope again, the majority who are free of depression ought to pay attention.

We who are depression-proofed persons ought also to examine ourselves, our families, our organizations, our workplaces, and our faith communities to determine what is awry and create new systems and new ways of living together on planet earth.

Depression helps us all become more aware of ourselves and our society. And it drives us to the One who can truly heal all of our ills, both personal and societal. In this way, depression can be our teacher, and not just an unwanted interloper.

After all, who wants to make a monkey of themselves?

Holy God, please observe all who live with depression and hold them in your good strong hands. Send them your love through therapists, pastors, friends, and family. Grant them assurance of your love in their dark hours.

In your mercy, hear my prayer concerning the depressed persons in my life. I feel powerless and inadequate to help. I am frustrated because depression can be so unpredictable. Help me find the resilience and resources I need to be with them during their time of pain. And teach me what I need to learn in their darkness, as well, through Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.