Just over a week or so ago I was woken early one morning with what I thought at the time was bad indigestion. I had this really annoying pain right across my chest. I had had it before a few times, off and on, during the previous ten days or so, but it usually wore off after about ten minutes following a dose of Gaviscon or a couple of Rennies. I have had a hiatus hernia for several years, for which I am prescribed Lansoprazole by my doctor, but of late even doubling the dose for a short time had failed to resolve the onset of my indigestion problem of recent days. I had tried eating more sensibly, eating more slowly, not eating too late … but the problem still recurred intermittently. Eventually, even though I wasn’t supposed to take any additional ‘off the shelf’ medication in addition to the Lansoprazole, I resorted to the odd swig of Gaviscon or a couple of Rennies when the chest pain came on. In addition to this, I had been experiencing problems with pain down my right leg when out walking for any length of time, and quite severe pain across my shoulders and down my arms that would suddenly grip me. Both these pains subsided after a short while when I rested. These had been going on for several months, and I had put them down to a trapped nerve somewhere in my back. Several expensive visits to the chiropractor helped a bit but failed to resolve the problem. In the end I decided to ‘learn to live with the problem’ before I managed to spend all our savings?! To me, there was no relationship between the indigestion problem and the shoulders/arms/leg problem. These were simply the symptoms of old age and, after all, having finally reached 70 I could not expect to remain as fit as I was when I was in my 20s?!
Anyway, cutting a long story short, this particular morning when I was actually woken up by the ‘indigestion’ pain, the pain did not go away. I tried taking the usual tablets but nothing worked. Eventually I woke Julia and she drove me to Dorchester Hospital at around 6.00 a.m. I was seen straight away and subjected to various tests – ECG, blood pressure, x-ray, blood etc. It turned out that I had had a mild heart attack, and the ‘indigestion’ had not been indigestion, and the chest, shoulder, arms, neck, leg pain had not been anything to do with a trapped nerve. I spent the next week in hospital having various other tests including an angiogram, and taking numerous additional pills to thin my blood and resolve my problems.
I ought to say at this time that I do have a subsisting heart condition, which I have had from birth, but which is so unusual that the medical people don’t have a name for it. My condition was only discovered 12 years ago when I was taken into Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham after feeling a bit breathless. I suffer from hay fever and, at the time put my breathlessness down to this. As a result, a casual visit to the doctor turned into a full scale emergency with me being rushed straight into hospital from the surgery at the doctor’s insistence, even though I felt reasonably o.k. at the time?! In hindsight he was right and I was wrong because I ended up spending a week in hospital, feeling completely exhausted, being subjected to numerous tests, and then having to take seven months off work before the doctors would sign me back on as fit to work again. The angiogram that I had then showed that I am completely ‘peculiar’ – as one of the hospital doctors informed me. I told her that the actual word she was looking for to describe me was ‘unique’! Apparently I have various fistulas – branches off the arteries – some that lead nowhere, and others between the artery and the lungs resulting in shunting of blood and improperly oxygenated blood. This, of course, explains why I never managed to play football or cricket for England? Julia says it explains a lot of other things about me as well?! Anyway, without digressing further, the decision at the time was that my condition was so complicated that the best thing to do was to do nothing, and see what the future held. Initially I was put on medication for a short while, and my condition was monitored periodically if the various hospital I was under at the time (we have moved house twice in the last 12 years) remembered to call me in?
So, 12 years later, here I was back in hospital having numerous tests and being given lots of different forms of medication. The angiogram that I had the following day aroused great interest in the theatre – every medical person present gathering around the TV screen and making various comments along the lines of ‘Wow! Look at that!’ or ‘Never seen anything like that before?!’ Anyway, the final conclusion was that my condition hadn’t improved any – and if anything it might have deteriorated slightly. This was somewhat difficult to ascertain because the Princess Royal Hospital, Farnborough (which I was under prior to moving to Dorset three years ago) appear to have lost my records?! The heart specialist at Dorchester did request photos of my previous angiogram, but the dear old Princess Royal sent him pictures of one of my knees instead?! Eventually Dorchester Hospital sent me home to recuperate with lots of pills to take, a copy of an incomprehensible letter to my doctor, a verbal confirmation that the cardiac department ‘would be having another meeting’ to discuss me soon, and the vague promise that I would probably be an eventual candidate for bypass surgery at some point in the future.
Reflecting on all this at home, whilst I lie around not allowed to do anything energetic until the doctors give me permission, started me thinking about the old saying that often times, ‘The heart of the problem, is the problem of the heart!’ It is probably most often quoted in connection with tales of unrequited love or theological explanation of the poor state of humanity. In my case, of course, it was definitely medically true. I did not have an ongoing problem with indigestion, nor did I have an ongoing problem with a trapped nerve somewhere in my back?! I had a problem with my heart that manifested itself in indigestion-like pain in my chest, and serious pain across my shoulders, down my arms, in my neck, and down one leg. Now I am home from hospital – and on the right sort of medication – I no longer have ‘indigestion’ or pain across my shoulders etc. And eventually, I guess, I will possibly have heart bypass surgery which will correct the problem completely.
My reflection also led me to those words found in Ezekiel 36:26 where God promises his ancient people, ‘I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart’. Ezekiel prophesied around 597 BC, and what he has to say is not so much a theological manual as the word of God to a battered remnant in exile in Babylon. Their dire situation was in many ways of their own making – years of neglecting God and his purposes for them – but what we have here (and Ezekiel 36:26 is a good example) is God’s promise of restoration, restoration that is not bound to their prior repentance, but as an act of God’s grace which leads to repentance (repentance being a complete reversal of direction).
Many of us (perhaps even the majority of us) would like to change the world that we live in for the better – a fairer world, free from want, violence, slavery, and so on – but we will never change this world until the hearts of men and women are changed. We all need ‘a new heart’ and ‘a new spirit’! We need our ‘stony, stubborn hearts’ removed and replaced by ‘tender, responsive hearts’. Only God can do this for us. We cannot ‘pull ourselves up by our boot laces’. Like Saul of Tarsus, on Damascus Road (Acts 9), we need to be ‘converted’ – turned right around so that we are now going God’s way, seeing things from God’s point of view, doing the things that Jesus himself did. This is not just true for non-Christians, it is also true for the Church. Many of us professing Christians have become consumed by institutional religion, religious legalism, the wrong kind of fundamentalism, spiritual pride and arrogance, and so on. We too, need to change. We too need ‘a new spirit’ and ‘a new heart’. We need our ‘stubborn, stony hearts’ replacing with ‘tender, responsive hearts’. It is no good for any of us to look for alternatives, or even short cuts. Our problem is not ‘spiritual indigestion’ or ‘trapped nerves’. Our real problem is to do with our ‘hearts’ – not our literal hearts, the thing that pumps blood around our bodies and essentially keeps us alive – but the very centre of our whole being, that which in the Bible is used figuratively for the hidden springs of our personal lives. The heart of the problem is the problem of the heart!? Time for us to turn to Doctor Jesus for help, methinks!