Guard Your Heart
When I was about 50 or so – prime time for a midlife crisis – my backyard neighbor knocked on the door. He was coming home from work and couldn’t get up the snow-covered hill so he asked if he could leave his car in my driveway. I didn’t want to be parked in so I told him to put it in the garage. I would leave my boring beige minivan outside.
Now he had this car for a couple of years and I never much thought about it, but then he pulled this shiny red Z-8 BMW convertible into my garage. This is the car James Bond drove, the one with 400 horsepower that will take you from 0 to 60 in 4.7 seconds. Suddenly I felt a pang of envy. I immediately broke the tenth commandment, “Thou shall not covet”. In fact I did more than break it. I smashed it into little pieces and then trampled over it to stare at and drool over this car gleaming in my garage.
I thought, “What would it take for me to buy a car like that? I looked it up. It would only be $130,000.” I thought, “Maybe my sons don’t really need to go to college. How bad could a life-long career at McDonald’s be?” Or, maybe the Church might give me a big raise? I could bring this up at the next Personnel meeting and tell them that I need a car like that so that when someone gets sick I could get to the hospital real fast.
When I came back in the house my wife immediately recognized my expression she said, “Don’t even think about it.” But, it was too late. I was already thinking about it. I had let that thing into my garage now it was squeezing into my thoughts and desires and into my heat.
In today’s scripture a father counsels his son to be careful about what he lets into his garage, into his heart, because it is from the heart our words and attitudes and actions emerge. He said, “Son, guard your heart.” How we do that is what we will look at today. Let us pray:
Lord, we pray “with confidence we might draw near to your throne of grace, and so receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Amen
The book of Proverbs is essentially one long Father/Son talk or rather a whole bunch of parent/child discussions. It’s what a Dad says to his child when they come home from a disastrous Little League game. It’s what parents say to children who are learning to drive or going out on first date or walking down the aisle or when they bring home their first grandchild. It’s the kind of advice that makes teenagers roll their eyes and look off into the distance. It is wisdom born from experience. It’s the stuff that that is passed down through the generations.
Our text begins, “My son, be attentive to my words”, which is the Bible’s way of saying, “listen-up, pay attention – this is important stuff.” He warned, “Guard your heart with all diligence.” Be careful what you let in your garage.
In studying this passage I blew the dust off my Hebrew Bible and discovered that it uses three different words for “protect” or “guard” so that the reader doesn’t miss the point. This is a matter of great importance. In fact, one of the words at its root means “sheep pen” or the fence that protects sheep from predators or thieves or from just wandering off.
So it appears, the father told his son to build a fence around his heart to protect him from predators or thieves or from just wandering off. Dad already knew what it would take his son a lifetime to learn. There are people out there who prey on others with promises they’ll never keep. There are temptations that are designed to steal the heart away from God. If you are not careful, like a lamb that follows it nose from one tuft of grass to another, you may find that you have wandered far from the shepherd and into a box canyon – a dead end.
When I was growing up parents had an easier job of this. The whole culture seemed focused on protecting children. The T.V. networks, all three of them had a code created by the government that limited the kinds of words and language an actor might use in a prime time show. It sanitized violence in war movies so that you never saw anyone bleed. Sexuality was strictly G rated. Ozzie and Harriet slept in separate beds.
The innocence of childhood was protected by churches and schools. Back then everyone tried to guard the hearts of the children.
Today that is not so. In fact those who try to do so are scorned and made-fun-of and called “goody two-shoes”. Today through the internet any child old enough to hit a couple of keys on a computer can have access to any and every form of sexuality, and to violence that leaves nothing to the imagination, and to voices that advocate ideas and behaviors that could have gotten you arrested when I grew up.
Today parents have to be much more cautious and protective of their children. They want them to avoid the mistakes they may have made along the way so that they may avoid the consequences for their actions that they suffered.
So that his son might avoid the mistakes he may have made, the Father in Proverbs told him, “Don’t talk out of both sides of your mouth, and to avoid careless banter, white lies, and gossip.” Big talk can lead to big trouble because somebody is going to ask you to back it up.
Years ago, when I was sixteen or so, a group of kids from this Church went tobogganing on the hill across from York College. Somehow a six-foot swath of ice was created all the way down. To make it even more interesting there was big bump half way down. Just looking at it made you shiver. We all thought it looked too dangerous to try, but we were a mixed group, so to impress the girls one of the boys in our group said, “That doesn’t look so bad.”
Well it looked pretty dangerous to me and I said so. That’s when someone else said, “What are you – a chicken?” Well, you’ve heard it said, “Discretion is the better part of valor”, but there is no sixteen-year-old boy in the world who believes that, so down I went just lying on my back. When I got back up to the top another of my so-called friends said, “I bet you can’t do that sitting on the toboggan.” So down I went again. That was exciting, but I got to the bottom unscathed.
So, my third so-called friend said, “I’ll bet you can’t do that standing up.” I learned later that my stunt was magnificent, and when I hit that bump I flew far and high into the air. I learned that later because that’s what they told me after I regained consciousness – while they were taking me to the York hospital.
Great chunks of the wisdom writing in the Bible cautions us to be careful with our words because thoughtless words lead us in directions we ought not go and prompts us to do things we ought not to be doing. Rather than confess that we have misspoken or made a mistake, pride will prompt us to back up foolishness even if it means we end up unconscious at the bottom of a hill. So, one way to guard the heart is to guard your words. Both those you speak and those you listen to.
That has been the focus of discussion since James Hodgkinson targeted a group of Republican congressional representatives and members of their staffs who were practicing for a charity baseball game.
After the carnage and after the shooters motives were made clear some began to wonder whether the harsh rhetoric that appears to define the current political climate may have been a contributing factor.
To be clear, the shooter is completely responsible for his own actions, and now must stand before God’s judgment to give an account for his actions.
But, I believe the climate and culture in which we all live today does have an impact and influence on what we say and how we think and so what we do. People would not invest so much of their time in Facebook postings and letters to the editor and office arguments if they did not think it would make a difference.
We can’t control what others say, but we can control what we will listen to. So, if someone on T.V. or on the internet speaks of someone with an opposing political view as being evil and so deserving to die, I turn it off. Similarly, If someone speaks to me in the same way with harsh words and a closed mind I turn away. I don’t need to listen to that. I need to guard my heart lest I end up doing the same thing. Proverbs 15:1 tells us “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
The second thing this father told his teenage son is to “Let your eyes look directly forward.” Eugene Peterson put it this way, “keep your eyes straight ahead and ignore all the sideshow distractions.” This father may have been teaching his son to drive the family chariot when he spoke these words, because today’s parents tell their kids the same thing when they are learning to drive the family car – keep your eyes on the road. Don’t be distracted by the bright lights on the side of the road calling you this way and that. Don’t be talking on the cell phone or worse yet texting. Pay attention to where you are going. Pay attention to what you are doing.
My father taught me to drive that way because that’s the way he drove. When we would travel on family vacations, he always kept the destination in mind. We did not stop or turn off our road until we got to where we were supposed to be. So, if we happened to pass by the Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon along the way we didn’t turn or stop if that was not the destination. We’d just drive right by. Once he made up his mind on where we were supposed to be he’d let no distraction divert him. All we could do was watch and wave as we went by. I’m told that I do the same thing on family trips.
Jesus said pretty much the same thing if you want to get to your final destination. He said in the matters of God we need to pay attention. “The way is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. The gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
There are many today who see faith as a trivial thing, as a matter of taste that differs from person to person. If it works for you that’s fine, but I might find something else that works better for me. All of it is about the same. So, many always keep their heads on a swivel looking for something that might work better for them. Their spiritual lives look like a child in a toy store who flits from toy to toy. Their spirituality is a mile wide and an inch deep.
When spiritual practice becomes only a tool I pick up to scratch an itch; then I remain at the center, only asking God to fill in the gaps I can’t fill myself. The theological word used to describe this attitude is idolatry. It is what the first commandment addressed when God said, “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.” If God is not at the center of our lives, he is in our lives not at all.
That’s why it is so important we watch over what we let into the heart, because the Bible says, “Out of it flows the springs of life.” We all know the truth of that. What meaning in life we find, what purpose we see, what love we express all issue from the heart, the core of our being. When that is cluttered by diversions, distractions, or temptations that are dangerous to the soul then we lose sight of the purpose for which we were created and love begins to cool and faith begins to fade.
One of the spiritual disciplines we follow so that we might focus once more on God at the center is the Sacrament of Holy Communion. That reminder of the sacrifice Christ made for us puts things in perspective once more. You can’t drink of that cup with understanding or eat that bread with comprehension without “examining yourself” once more. The shadow of the cross is cast over that moment and calls you to put first things first once more.
That’s why we usually leave space for reflection as the plates are passed. Usually, only the organ plays softly so that you might have a moment, perhaps the only moment you will have all week, for reflection. It is the time when you ask yourself, “Is there something I’ve let into my heart this week that should not be there? Is there some desire that doesn’t belong or some grievance against another that I have let fester? Has God been edged out by the diversions and distractions? Have I forgotten to guard my heart?”
If so, the Bible encourages us to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, so that we might run the race that is before us, keeping our eyes fixed upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.”
That’s what happened when my neighbor came back after the streets had been cleared of snow to pick up his shiny red Z-8 BMW convertible. I must confess that when he drove it away a small tear came to my eye, but when it was no longer in my garage, when I didn’t have to stare at it every day, I stopped thinking about it – not all at once of course, but day by day I thought about it less and less.
That’s how we guard our hearts. We get those things we can’t afford out of the garage and out of our minds. We turn away from those things God warns us about just a parent teaching a child to look both ways before crossing a street. Fill your eyes and minds and hearts with things that lift you up and not bring you down. Guard your heart. “Keep straight the path of your feet and all your ways will be sure.”
Let us pray:
Lord, when we are distracted renew our focus,
when hearts are divided restore our unity,
when vision is blurred grant us clarity,
when our hearing is deafened by the clattering noise of the crowd
let us find our peace in you.
Now and always through Jesus Christ. Amen
 Exodus 20:17
 Hebrews 4:16
 Proverbs 4:20
 Proverbs 4:23
 Proverbs 4:24 Peterson, Eugene: The Message.
 Proverbs 4:25
 Peterson, Eugene: The Message
 Matthew 7:14
 Exodus 20:2-3
 1 Corinthians 11:28
 Hebrews 12:1-2