Rend Your Hearts – Ash Wednesday reflections

“’Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.’ Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” (Joel 2:12-13) 

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures in particular, one encounters some reference to people tearing their garments. The context is typically regret, remorse, sadness, conviction, repentance. They have sinned against God and neighbor, have been led to a convicting realization of their transgression, and the outward sign of their inward state is tearing of clothes.

Having outward actions that represent our inward state is not unique to these passages in the bible by any means, of course. We greet friends and family with a hug, kiss, or handshake as a demonstration of the affection we feel for them. It is an outward expression that points to an inward reality. These gestures embody our feelings, connecting our inside with our outside.

Authenticity is Key

The key to all of this, however, is authenticity. Is our outward communication through these actions and gestures faithful or fake? Are we revealing or concealing what is in our hearts?

That is the crux of the issue in the scripture text above. God hammers home the absolute necessity that heart and body be on the same page.

Sometimes the disconnect is due to deliberate concealment. We do not want our insides revealed, so we wear a mask. We perform the outward actions but they are just that—a performance. Maybe it is because of guilt or shame, perhaps even mischief or malevolence. Whatever the reason, we conceal rather than reveal.

Sometimes the disconnect can be attributed to inattention. We grow accustomed to the actions. The words and patterns are familiar to us. This is good because they are a part of us. But the shadow side to this benefit is that we can perform them without full engagement. We say the creed, present our offering, say our prayers, sing our songs, read our scriptures, and check the boxes of religious practice. But through inattention they become wallpaper in our lives, present without standing out. They lose their connection to what is going on inside.

Renovation Work

That we are a temple, a dwelling place for the glory of God, has solid grounding in biblical theology. When Solomon dedicated the temple, he prayed for it to be a place where God’s glory and presence dwelt in a unique way. In the New Testament, we see Jesus presented as a new temple, in which God’s glory and presence dwells like no place else. And we find that part of salvation’s large project is for us—“our hearts” is the way we give language to this—to be a temple in which God’s glory and presence dwell in a special way too.

Perhaps we can think of it this way then. If we have placed our faith and trust in Christ for salvation and have therefore been reconciled to God the Father through Jesus Christ, then God is moving in. But he finds that to make this heart a place in which he is fully at home some renovation work is needed. The counter-tops are smudged with the grime of greed. The pipes are clogged with unforgiveness. The walls are weak with the deteriorating effects of pride.

Rend Your Hearts

Lent is a holy season that teaches us about the whole of our Christian journey. The call to repentance reminds us that renovation work is yet needed as Christ makes himself at home in us. And this renovation work requires that the outward expressions of faith match the inward desire of our hearts. And why rend our hearts? To show we’re ready—really ready—for the renovation work of the Spirit.

There’s a wonderful truth about the character of God laying at the foundation of this warning and call: “for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.”

A Definition of Discipleship 2

In my previous post, I shared that a friend asked me to answer the question, “What is discipleship?” I said there are plenty of good, solid ways to express what God reveals in scripture about discipleship. I shared a definition and some thoughts about the phrases in the first half of my definition.

Here’s the definition I’m working with, followed by some thoughts about the phrases in the second half.

Discipleship is a process of learning beliefs and behaviors from Jesus about living as a son/daughter of God.

From Jesus: While there are many great moral and spiritual teachers in human history—and it’s quite worth reading works like the dialogues of Plato and the Tao Te Ching, if you’re so inclined—Jesus stands head-and-shoulders above them all. Not only that, Jesus is the one human being in history who is not merely a human being, but also the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, the Savior of the world, and the Lord of all creation. For everyone else, they gain significance because of what they taught. For Jesus, what he teaches holds significance, not just because it is brilliant, but because of who he is.

About living as a son/daughter of God: Forgiveness for sin and transgression of God’s Law is a very real part of our being reconciled to God that we must not overlook or diminish. That said, the image we find again and again in Scripture is of family. A powerful image in the writings of Paul for our salvation is adoption into the family of God. Salvation is not only the freedom of a pardoned prisoner who has been told, “you’re free to go.” Salvation, robustly understood, is the freedom of an adopted child who has been told, “you’re free to come.”

The most famous example of this is of the prodigal son from Jesus’ parable in Luke 15. He alienates himself from his father due to his choices but returns when he realizes the poverty of his chosen path. He offers to become a servant in the household but the father will have none of it. Full restoration is the only option the father will entertain.

Being a child of God is a thing of great comfort and security. Being a child of God involves learning the character, the virtues, the way of life that this family embodies—the beliefs that give rise to the behaviors characteristic of this family. The best person to learn them all from is the Son, Jesus, whose life perfectly demonstrates what a Divine image-bearing life looks like. And, lest we forget, we are not alone. God graciously gives us his Spirit to dwell in us, empower us, and do the restoring work in us.

A Definition of Discipleship 1

“What is discipleship?”

That’s the question a friend asked me recently. I appreciated the opportunity to think about it and take a stab at boiling it down into a simple definition.

It is an important question to answer because we are called to discipleship when we become Christians. If you are not interested in being a disciple, you are not, by definition, interested in being a Christian.

Before sharing mine, let me affirm that there are lots of “right answers,” well-grounded biblically and theologically, to the question, “What is discipleship?” Mine is simply an effort that captures my reflections on Scripture and that seeks to express a practical theology of justification (being reconciled to God relationally) and sanctifcation (being restored as an image-bearer of God).

So, here is the answer I gave (with a little modification) and that I’m working with at present. I’ll share a couple of thoughts on the first half of the definition below and follow up with thoughts on the second half in the next post.

Discipleship is a process of learning beliefs and behaviors from Jesus about living as a son/daughter of God.

Process of learning: Discipleship is a journey. A disciple is a student or apprentice. It is not about “arriving,” but it is absolutely about advancing. In other words, being a disciple isn’t about doing enough to gain a status (the title of “disciple”), but about embarking on a journey. To be regarded as “being a disciple” demands walking the path, not just standing on it. Just like being a runner, guitarist, scientist, businessperson, teacher, etc, being a disciple involved submitting to a process, the aim of which is to mature and grow us in the vocation we have endeavored to take up.

Beliefs and behaviors: Discipleship is not merely about belief or merely about behavior. It includes both. Beliefs must lead to behaviors or they are not our true beliefs. Behaviors reveal our beliefs. Being a disciple is not only about adjusting our behavior, it is also about renewing our minds. Beware teachers who promote belief at the expense of behavior. Beware teachers who raise up behavior in a way that diminishes the importance of belief. To use some theological jargon, both orthodoxy and orthopraxy are vital.

In the next post, we’ll look at the last half of the definition, “from Jesus about living as a son/daughter of God.”

Wisdom on Trauma and Suffering

When a friend, family member, or even acquaintance endures trauma and suffering, we want to help somehow. Yet we are perplexed about how to do so. There is a temptation either to offer trite platitudes (even spiritual ones, extracting phrases from Scripture in hopes that they will work) or to back away, paralyzed by the uncertainty of not knowing what to say and what not to say.

The New York Times’ David Brooks reflects on this conundrum in his recent column, The Art of Presence. I agree with him that we are a society more eager to fix than to heal. So, we often speak and act from a perspective of wanting to make people okay after trauma or tragedy. The language I just used to describe this betrays the folly of attempting it. A television program may need to wrap up the problem in 24 or 48 minutes, but people certainly don’t adhere to that timetable. He summarizes and comments on a recent blog post on Sojourners, a Christian website and magazine devoted to social justice concerns.

The blog post, A New Normal: Ten Things I Learned From Trauma, by Catherine Woodiwiss, is well worth your time to read, as is Brooks’ column.

I’ve begun to say often, “emotional maturity is such a significant component of spiritual maturity it can be difficult to tell the difference.” I find the Sojourner’s blog post and Brooks’ column helpful in cultivating the emotional maturity needed for a faithful, and spiritually mature, response concerning suffering, trauma, and tragedy. “Not that I have already obtained this,” to reappropriate the Apostle Paul’s words, “but I press on…”

What Big Goals Can Do For You

“Run in such a way as to get the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:24)

Most of you know I enjoy running. I completed a big goal in July when I ran the Irving Half Marathon. From the time I finished the race, I began thinking about what I had learned from training and accomplishing this goal. Having reflected on it, God has used this hobby to teach me about my life in Christ.

The most important thing I learned from my race was that making a decision to accomplish a big goal had the power to make other smaller decisions for me in advance, if I would let it. Decisions about sleep, my schedule, and diet/nutrition were not always easy to practice. Yet when their alignment with the big goal was clear, it was less about me pushing myself to stay disciplined. The big goal pulled me along, keeping my eyes on the prize and helping me stay focused.

So, what’s the parallel for our spiritual formation?

The decision to follow Christ is a huge decision. And, like any big goal we aim for, it has the power to make lots of small decisions for us in advance, if we will let it. Decisions about appropriate boundaries in our marriage and relationships, honesty and integrity in our work, financial generosity, and nonjudgmental love for people are not always easy to practice. Yet when we see the impact those areas make on the goal of spiritual maturity and imitating Christ in our everyday lives, it’s less about pushing ourselves to do the right thing. The big goal of growing in Christlikeness can pull us forward, keeping our eyes on heaven’s prize and helping us stay focused on what is really most important in life.

I imagine you’ve experienced this dynamic in some aspect of life–physically, career-wise, in financial planning, etc. If you’re married, I’ll bet the big decision about dating your mate made a lot of smaller decisions for you! The same can be true in our spiritual development. Keep your eyes on the prize. Prioritize growing in Christlikeness. It won’t be easy. But let God pull you down the path.

Carving Out Space

“The king said to him, ‘Are you Daniel, one of the exiles my father the king brought from Judah? I have hear that the spirit of the gods is in you…’” (Daniel 5:14)

In his book, Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life, Jack Levison explores a number of biblical examples of the work of the Spirit in people’s lives. One of my favorite observations comes from the Old Testament. Daniel is a young man taken into Babylonian captivity yet groomed for leadership, having been recognized as a person of promise. His story of one of personal humility and boldness for God.

Looking at the whole story of Daniel, Levison observes: “Daniel doesn’t so much seek the Spirit as settle into the Spirit. He doesn’t crave direct and drastic displays of the Spirit’s power so much as carve out space for the expanse of the Spirit in the unseen crevices of his life. He doesn’t so much hunger for occasional outbreaks of spiritual power as for a simple life for the long haul.”

Think about that. Daniel’s life evidences the Spirit’s presence. But none of this is short-term fireworks. The distinguishing feature of Daniel’s life is a Spirit-filled “simple life for the long haul.” And the key to this “long haul” approach to life in God’s Spirit is Daniel acting to carve out space for the Spirit’s expanding place in his life.

So, how do we carve out space for the Spirit to expand in our our life? Holy habits and dispositions.

When we practice generosity, gratitude, forgiveness, and simplicity, space is carved out in our spirit and in our character, for God’s Spirit to expand and have greater influence in our lives. When we practice worship, scripture study, friendship, prayer, and service, space is carved out in our soul and in our schedule for God’s Spirit to expand and gain influence in our lives.

If the “fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23), then the soil in which this fruit can grow is the space we carve out for God’s Spirit to guide our attitude and character.

The world, our nation, and our communities need people whose lives are directed by the presence of God’s Spirit.

The Life-Giving Word

I run in the path of your commands, for you have broadened my understanding. (Psalm 119:32)

The verse above resonates with me because of the vivid picture of running within the path. Making the imaginative leap to our lives is not difficult. Like the conservationist carefully clearing and marking the trail or like the parks personnel diligently planning and laying the walkways, God’s Word creates a path for us to walk within. If the path seems confining, spiritual and moral wilderness is the alternative. The right path is a gift.

What I love best about this verse is how the boundaries of a path and the broadness of the person’s understanding are matched together. Other translations use images of a heart freed or enlarged. Both ways of rendering the original Hebrew phrase gets at the same idea. See the contrast? When our path has clearer boundaries, wisdom broadens. The reverse is also true. When our path’s boundaries are blurred or non-existent morally and spiritually, wisdom shrinks. Hearts are chained, not freed.

So, what paths does God mark off clearly for us as Christians? Sex is an obvious one. The traditional standard of sexual intimacy within the context of marriage is the Christian teaching. Walking terrain beyond this path fails to free hearts and broaden wisdom. Experiences? Yes. Wisdom? No. Let’s be clear about that. But let’s be equally clear that God’s path includes boundaries for stewardship and generosity, forgiveness and reconciliation, justice and compassion. Stinginess, judgmentalism, self-centeredness, hard-heartedness, and pride are at least as pernicious vices. Probably more, in fact, since their root systems are concentrated in the heart, mind, and soul. If we don’t perceive ourselves “sinning in the body,” sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking that we aren’t in any wilderness at all.

Yet, God does give us commands: the Ten Commandments, the Great Commandment of love of God and neighbor, the fruit of the Spirit—most of all, the life and teachings of Jesus. Even better, God makes choosing and staying on this path possible by the power of Jesus’ cross and resurrection, and through the work of the Holy Spirit and the Church in our lives.

Want broad understanding? Expanded wisdom? Strong, free hearts? The Psalmist is clear. Run in the path of God’s commands.